Saturday, July 08, 2006
Review - The Wind That Shakes The Barley
Congratulations to Ken Loach. The veteran British director was awarded a long overdue Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his latest film The Wind That Shakes The Barley. It is a fitting recognition for a filmmaker whose entire body of work has been marked by an intelligence, passion and refusal to compromise, which has seen his films shine like a beacon through the last four decades of British cinema.
What a shame Loach has received this honour for one of the weakest films of his career.
Ken Loach has never shied away from tackling difficult, pertinent issues in his films, and The Wind That Shakes The Barley sees the director taking on a period in history from which the repercussions are still being felt today. The film takes place in Ireland in 1920 and details the fledgling days of the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, as they fought for independence against their oppressive British rulers. It is Loach’s most ambitious film since 1995’s Land and Freedom, a film with which it bears notable similarities, but while The Wind That Shakes The Barley has been made with sincerity and care, it rarely challenges or enlightens the viewer, and it never touches the heart.
The Wind That Shakes The Barley focuses its attentions on the O’Donovan brothers Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Padraic Delaney), two young men from a small village in Cork. Damien is on the verge of fulfilling his dream of becoming a doctor, and will leave for his new position in London in a few days. After the friendly hurling match which opens the film, Damien receives a few good-natured jibes from his friends about working for the English, but most of the community is proud to see one of their own making something of himself. Their afternoon pleasure is short-lived however, as they are ambushed by a group of Black and Tans - British soldiers sent to suppress any thoughts of Irish independence - and when Micheail, a young man who only speaks Gaelic, cannot give one of the soldiers his name in English, he is viciously murdered in front of his family.
Damien’s friends’ determination to rise up against the British regime is only strengthened by this savage act, but pacifist Damien advises against such actions, given the British army’s superior numbers and firepower. A few days later, Damien is ready to leave for his new life in England; but his journey is interrupted by an incident at the station in which a train driver refuses to carry any Black and Tans on board, and takes a brutal beating as a result. Witnessing this terrible scene, Damien has a sudden change of heart and heads home to join his older brother Teddy in pledging allegiance to the IRA; and this small band of rebels begin staging guerrilla-style attacks on the British forces, their numbers slowly growing as Irish citizens around the country join their cause.
Loach’s depiction of Irish life in the 20’s is atmospheric and authentic, the film contains a number of striking sequences, and the performances throughout are heartfelt and effective; but these strong aspects of The Wind That Shakes The Barley never quite come together to form a convincing whole. Paul Laverty’s screenplay offers sketchy characterisation and simplistic storytelling, and Loach’s passionate support for the underdog leads him to unbalance the film with his one-dimensional portrayal of the British.
Anyone who appears in The Wind That Shakes The Barley wearing a Black and Tan uniform or speaking in a British accent will invariably be swearing, shouting, beating somebody up or finding some other way to abuse their power. There’s no doubt that the British soldiers did commit some brutal acts against the Irish in this period, and that the soldiers’ own experiences in the Great War may have informed their actions (a point Loach briefly acknowledges), but their portrayal here is too much. The Irish kill too, of course, but only when justifiable and their actions often lead to plenty of soul-searching afterwards. Even one of the few British characters who actually gets some sort of character to work with, landowner Sir John (Roger Allam), is still a painfully one-note bastard - a curled moustache away from being the villain in a 1920’s two-reeler.
This is not subtle stuff from Loach. There is little of the complexity or nuance he normally brings to his films and the morality is black-and-white. There is poor characterisation on both sides of the divide, and few of the Irish really come to life either. Cillian Murphy is once again impressive in the lead role, bringing dignity and tenderness to the part, but the transformation Damien undergoes is hard to swallow. He preaches pacifism when his friend Micheail is murdered, but then he gives up his career as a doctor and his socialist ideals to join the IRA when he spots a stranger being beaten at the station. Later, when his brother Teddy is ready to accept a compromise from the British, Damien continues fighting for complete independence. We never really fathom what drives this character as he goes from timid appeaser to passionate freedom fighter.
As Teddy, Padraic Delaney also gives a solid performance, and the film becomes much more interesting in the second half, when the relationship between the two brothers becomes the central issue. After the British declare a truce, offering partial independence, Teddy becomes part of the new Free State Army and finds himself and Damien on opposing sides. Their struggle escalates to a finale in which some tough choices have to be made, and it was around this point that The Wind That Shakes The Barley finally started to come to life. This is what Loach does best; exploring issues and making political points by boiling the film down to the human drama at its centre. The director has been working this way for decades, but he seems to have lost his sense of focus here and the film never really engages on an emotional level.
There are things which The Wind That Shakes The Barley does very well. The film is beautifully shot by Barry Ackroyd and individual scenes are exceptional. One standout is a sequence in which Damien and Teddy have to watch as a group of Black and Tans terrorise Damien’s sweetheart Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald) and burn her family’s home, as they don’t have the ammunition to take them on. Another scene which hits the right note takes place in a local court, during a money dispute between a landlord and elderly tenant. One side of the IRA fighters want to see the landlord appeased because they can use his money to buy arms, but another faction wants justice to be done, and a passionate speech from Dan (Liam Cunningham) questions the importance of winning independence if they won’t do the right thing by their own people. Cunningham gives one of the film’s finest performances, adding weight and gravitas where it’s most needed, and his delivery of this speech is passionate and powerful.
Unfortunately, The Wind That Shakes The Barley rarely musters up the energy required to be passionate or powerful itself. Paul Laverty’s schematic screenplay is handled in a surprisingly stodgy, lethargic way by Loach, and the film ultimately offers a flat and empty experience. I’m astonished that this distinctly average film has won the Palme d’Or, and I think it’s a clear case of the jury rewarding the man rather than the film. That’s about right; Loach deserves every plaudit for his extraordinary career, but The Wind That Shakes The Barley doesn’t deserve any of the awards bestowed upon it.