Monday, June 26, 2006

Film Review: The Wind that Shakes the Barley

My overall verdict on this controversial film is one of disappointment. With a running time of almost two and half hours it is excessively long and tends to be slow moving in parts. At times it reverts to sentimental melodrama unworthy of Ken Loach’s long-established reputation for gritty realism.

Set in an unnamed location in rural Ireland in 1920, the film follows the fortunes of the local IRA unit with Cillian Murphy in the lead role as Damien, a young doctor who unwillingly joins his brother Teddy (Paudraic Delaney) in the struggle against the British forces. The location filming in Co. Cork concentrating mainly on narrow shots of rugged mountain and moorland is effective in contrasting the beauty of the scenery with the bloodshed taking place within it.

The allegations of anti-Britishness by the right wing press are largely unfounded. The Black and Tans carrying the psychological scars from the trenches of the Somme are certainly portrayed as brutal, but the film does make the effort to redress the balance. There is a scene in which a young soldier with a conscience collaborates with a number of Irish detainees. Another scene involves the cold-blooded killing of a young informer by the local IRA unit which doesn’t lend any sympathy towards his executioners.
Sukhdev Sandhu’s review in the Daily Telegraph (ironically!) effectively captures Loach’s message:

“The central and bitter irony is that he's a man [Murphy] dedicated, or so he thought, to a life saving the lives of the weak and infirm. And now, he's guilty of shooting "traitors'' in cold blood. The scene in which he does so is extraordinarily powerful, not just because of the paradoxes it reveals about revolutionary terror, but because of the tenderness with which Loach highlights the youth and weakness of the boy who has been accused of treachery. Single-handedly, this ensures that the film, intelligently scripted by Paul Laverty, could never be viewed as a pro-IRA manifesto.”

The Irish Times takes a balanced view:
“There's no doubt which side Loach takes. The Black and Tans are depicted as callous, belligerent oppressors, and there is, perhaps, one scene too many to emphasise their sadism. The film proves more complex than that on just about every level, however, and a later scene observes them from a socialist perspective, as servants of their political masters, as men hardened from years up to their necks in muck and vomit in the trenches of the Somme.”

In contrast Chris Tookey in his somewhat one-sided review in the Daily Mail (surprise surprise!), although expressing admiration for some of the director’s other films is considerably less kind to Loach:

“He refuses to acknowledge the fanaticism and brutality of the IRA.
...But too much of Barley is in the same, sorry tradition as his infamous Hidden Agenda (1990) in the way it presents the British Army as the force of darkness, and the IRA as a cheery bunch of folk singers, democrats and humanitarians.
It's unashamedly pro-IRA propaganda, so simpleminded and fanatically anti-British that it's a miracle Mel Gibson isn't involved.”

The real conflict portrayed here however is not that of Irish against British, but the internal feuding within the republican movement of the day which eventually resulted in the civil war of 1923-24, in which lifelong friends became enemies and families were bitterly divided.

Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian taking a diplomatic line acknowledges this:

"So The Wind That Shakes the Barley is not just about how the British behaved, but about how the Irish behaved - and how they learned their behaviour in government both from their former imperial masters and from their masters' enemies. It is fatuous and tiresome to wonder if Loach and Laverty should have been less severe in their portrayal of the Black and Tans, in the interests of broadsheetbrow "balance" - as if it would be acceptable to present the broad facts of how the Black and Tans treated Irish villagers, so long as one soldier is shown suppressing a tear, or maybe sadly ruffling some peasant boy's mop of hair, or perhaps, as in David Lean's Ryan's Daughter, having a doomed affair with a local woman. Loach is not interested in splitting the difference between historical realities and lenient liberal scruple. In any case, the point of the film lies elsewhere, in the agony of what happened after 1922."

John Walsh in the Independent is similarly pragmatic:

“Loach's film is a harrowing look at the birth of a new independent nation, and the terrible sacrifices that were required by its founders. It doesn't glorify shooting your enemies or your own people' it's fully conscious of the tragic ironies attendant on taking sides and applying laws. If Mr Loach is guilty of portraying the consequences of a terrible initiative by the British, thereby embarrassing the patriotic and the reactionary, he deserves our praise. They should know better than to attack the messenger for bringing the bloody truth to British eyes, 80 years on.”

Loach to his credit steers clear of the Hollywood style glamour apparent in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins by using a cast of largely unknown actors and refusing to glorify the armed struggle, but instead conveying the message that violience begets violence. His insistence on using non-professional actors to play certain parts works to great effect in the casting of ex–army personnel as British soldiers.

The idealists in the film strive towards James Connolly’s ideal of a socialist worker’s republic – a vision which causes them to fall out of favour with the Catholic church, an institution portrayed as acting within its own interests by always taking the rich man’s side. There is thus the suggestion that the conflict is really all about money and land rather than any notable aspiration towards liberation.

One particularly noteworthy scene deals with the execution of an English aristorat accused of collaboration with the British army. He expresses contempt for his killers with the line “God help Ireland if your sort ever gets into power. We’ll end up with a priest-infested backwater”. The impoverished sectarian theocracy of De Valera’s Ireland characterised by mass emigration under the oppressive iron grip of the Catholic church which emerged from the ashes of the struggle leaves us thinking that this prediction is not far off the mark. There is further irony in the concept of the modern Celtic Tiger era republic, a materialistic, selfish capitalist society of glaring inequalities and the legacy of corruption left by a certain CJ Haughey. Neither version of the Irish Republic genuinely resembles that envisaged by the idealists of the time. In this respect one is invited to contemplate the real price of freedom.

Certainly not one of Loach’s best works. He has made better films in his time - Kes, Land and Freedom to name but two more deserving of the Palme d’Or. However if we interpret this award as an overall recognition of Loach’s lifetime’s work, rather than for TWTSTB alone, then he’s entitled to it.


Lorainne said...

Have loads of deeply intellectual comments to make about this film - just can't think of them for now as am having a 'blonde' be continued later......

Lorainne said...

Interesting thoughts Ciaran. I did not find the film dissappointing at all, my only criticisms being the pace (was slow in parts) and the lack of imagination over use of location. Otherwise I felt Loach depicted the conflict successfully. He allowed the audience to have sympathy with all sides, the republicans with their idealistic patriotism, the free staters with their thoughts that peace was worth some compromise and even the WW1 shell shocked British soldiers (particularly the one whose father was from Donegal and he had been asked to kill his own people). I thought the conflict between free staters and republicans was portrayed very effectively. Rather than being anti-British the film emerged as anti-Capitalist - illustrated by the way the republicans were seen compromising their ideals when money was involved and the fact that so many people joined both the republican movement and the British Army through necessity of poverty.

CW said...

I agree Lorainne. The socialist leanings are evident in trhe scene just after the de facto court orders the loan shark businessman to pay costs to his debtor event though she owes him money.
The trade unionist train driver orders the others to turn out their pockets to reveal the extent of their poverty. We have the suggestion here that they are fighting a poor man's war. This is contrasted with the bourgeois attitudes of the church with the priest at the pulpit advocating support for the treaty.