The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Having received much criticism at Cannes from the British press, despite winning the Palmes Golden Award, I was keen to see what all the controversy was about for Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley. From what was being said it did sound like the issues was with the mainland British press who were less than impressed with the portrayal of the British soldiers and Government during their occupation of Ireland in the early nineteen hundreds.
There's also the interest of the time, terrorism is perhaps one of the biggest influences on our cinemas and television, and here was Loach returning to a period in Britain's history that sparks a lot of comparisons with the world today and our soldiers abroad.
You can already tell that this is a controversial and difficult subject to tackle, even if you don't understand the history of Ireland and Britain, it is a complex story to tackle in such a short time and Loach has a lot to live up to.
The story looks to the early days of the IRA as they rise up against the occupation of the mainland British Army and begin to fight for complete independence. The presence of the British army is never explained fully, we join the movie while the occupation is in full swing and house searches and arrests are commonplace.
Through the movie we watch two brothers, played by Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney, join the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and fight against the British, one retains the hold on the original ideas of total freedom, and the other on peace.
Unfortunately the big feeling I had throughout the film and still feel looking back on the movie, it is a very simplistic view of the issues involved and it portrays characters and sides as extremely black and white. The Irish were true and right, the British were evil and the real terrorists.
This view lasts for much of the movie and there is only one soldier who tries to bring a slightly different view to the events, this lasts but a few lines and is talked down by Murphy's character. The soldier talks of doing his duty and his men having just returned from the trenches abroad having seen such things…and then he backs down, backs away in a cowardly gesture and leaves another soldier to threaten and beat the information out of him.
This simplification and black and white labeling continues even on the Irish side when we see the IRA arguing amongst themselves as the first true Irish court is overruled by Teddy, one of the brothers and leader of this local IRA group. The reason for this is that the accused is one of the people bankrolling the importing of their weaponry, and so he protects him from going to prison. This splits the group in half, with one group believing the only thing to focus on is defeating the British and the other trying desperately to hold onto the fact that this new Irish court must be allowed to have the power they fought for. Again this lasts but a scene before returning to the simpler viewpoint.
This scene also brings forward another problem I found with the movie, the story seems to have been quite heavily edited and one of the main points brought forward in this scene is lost. So far we have seen the small, local band fighting against the local army and it's only during this scene that one of the characters points out that they have captured the town from the British control and have lookouts protecting the city walls from the Army. Effectively they have managed to create the beginnings of a free Irish state, and to this point we had no real idea of their growing success. Again, with the passing of this scene the moment is lost.
There seems to be a number of story lines that have either not been properly explored or have been edited out of the final movie, and this hurts the film quite hard. For instance the whole exploration of the brothers and their slow drifting apart to different sides of the Irish fight is lost to a key number of scenes which give a punchy update.
Another part of the film which I felt seemed to be lacking was where the comparisons were made between the new Irish Army and the British Army before them. Although it was clear to see that they adopted the role and tactics of the British, it just didn't seem to be explored or made more of. Simply put it seemed that they were traitors to their country and cause, despite a scene where the characters get a chance to defend themselves, again it returns to the simplistic black and white viewpoint.
Yet there was more to this and you just manage to get a little hint of it. Were the new Irish Army simply seduced by the promise of peace and power, or were they really beginning to understand why the British had behaved as they did and adopted their tactics because it was the thing to do? We're not really sure, and I did feel that this was quite a big point to be made.
The film is definitely connecting with the current understanding of terrorism around the world, and I really think that the film is taking advantage of this and may be why there has been such a strong response for it. After all it is showing the fight of a country against an invading and occupying force, and in the current world climate that story is telling a very different tale to the one that is currently in the press.
I'm still unsure what this film was trying to say. However despite all I've said it is a good movie, and that word must be remembered while watching, it's a movie not a documentary.
With all these faults I was still pulled into the film and felt for the characters, although I didn't connect with the two brothers plight, I did get pulled into some of the other characters. The actors play this film with tons of pain and passion, and you can hear it in their voices and see it in their faces.
The writing is superb, and although the dialogue is sometimes hard to follow or hear, it is one of the things that actually gives such a strong feeling of reality. Characters speak together and over each other, tripping over words, repeating lines, it's all played very naturally, and that helps the believability of the film.
Interestingly there weren't any real scene stealing performances, and that's not because the actors weren't great, it's because the performances were all strong and natural. Murphy and Delaney were very good with Liam Cunningham giving perhaps the strongest performance for me and Orla Fitzgerald providing a very strong support.
Overall it's a good movie, but not a comfortable one, especially for all British who may feel that history and their countries place in it is not fairly shown, and I mean that for the Irish too. In a way the tale had to be simplified otherwise it would have been too big, and too complex.
It has social relevance for our times, plays some importance to past history, and with a strong script and good performances, it's both entertaining and thought provoking. As I always say about cinema, if you come out thinking about what you're going to have for tea then the film hasn't been a success, but if you come out with the film still on your mind, it has.
After mulling over this last night and this morning I've decided to drop the score from a four to a three. For me the negative points are affecting my view of the movie more than I first thought. Still, a three is good score.