The Wind that Shakes the Barley

Starring Cillian Murphy and Liam Cunningham. Directed by Ken Loach.
Running Time: 122mins.
Rated: Rated M.
Ken Loach's best film for a long time. It bears comparison with his 1995 award-winning Land of Freedom, his exploration of the Spanish Civil War. Sometimes that film was weighed down by discussion and rhetoric. This time there are strong verbal arguments but they are well worked into the drama and the action.

The title comes from a 19th century poem, a muted lament for the loss of peace as the wind blows over the golden crops of barley. The film itself is a powerful lament for lives lost in rebellion against the harsh, military occupation and its brutality in word and action, for brotherly conflicts and civil war, and the religious, social and political divisions that are still so potent today.

Collaborating again with writer Paul Laverty in a finely-hewn screenplay, Loach immerses us in a village near Cork in the early 1920s and its surrounding countryside, invites us to suffer with the people, to ask ourselves what we would do in similar life and death situations, to try to listen to voices of reason that would work for freedom through temporary compromise, to hear the passionate arguments of fighters for immediate freedom (who are the forebears of the IRA). Loach's film is an anti-war war film.

By keeping us within the confines of a small group who symbolise what was happening all over the country, the film is able to offer universal insights while keeping the mind and the emotions focused on this group. The Black and Tans generally act abominably, with a verbally abusive and humiliating contempt of the Irish. British landowners inform on their workers and have no qualms about destroying those they see as peasants in a priest-ridden backwater.

Guerrilla warfare leads to reprisals and a violent spiral with consequent grief, especially for the women - and the old women who have lived through the famine and the oppressions of the later 19th century.

Then the cycle almost comes full circle as the new Irish Free State authorities don military uniform while their exploits literally mirror those of the occupying British. The same family suffers the same treatment at beginning and end of the film from each side.

In terms of communications these were primitive times, messengers on horseback or foot, young women and children delivering messages - although the signing of the Treaty in 1922 for the Free State is watched by the people in newsreels.

At the centre of the film are two brothers, the older (Padraic Delaney) the leader of the rebels, the younger (Cillian Murphy) a recently graduated doctor. Ultimately, they will take different sides for and against the Treaty, which leads to a tragic ending. Their struggles embody the confusion and struggles of the whole people. Both actors have charismatic presence. Cillian Murphy is a rising star (during 2005, the transvestite hero of Breakfast on Pluto and villains in Batman Begins and Red Eye). There is also an arresting performance by Liam Cunningham as a union representative who voices freedom-fighting exhortations with vehemence.

Those who don't know or who ignore history are condemned to relive it. This is part of the story of 20th century Ireland. This film could be the story of any occupied nation or a nation involved in civil struggles - with occupation forces, brutal treatment, acts of terrorism, attempts at stabilising provisional government and insurgents who want no compromise.

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and an associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.

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