Competition at the 2006 Cannes film festival was more fierce than usual. Many of the movies getting Oscar buzz later that year were in competition. Among the contenders were Babel, Fast Food Nation, Volver, and Pan’s Labyrinth. But when the awards were handed out on May 28th the film that walked away with the Palm d’Or was Ken Loach’s drama about the Irish War for Independence The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Unlike many of the losers at Cannes, The Wind That Shakes the Barley did no get distributed for Oscar consideration in late 2006, instead it got a small blink and you’ll miss it release in March of 2007. Now, more than a year after it won the prestigious award, I’ve finally gotten a chance to catch Ken Loach’s drama on DVD.
The film takes place in the early twenties in Ireland, during the War for Independence. The film opens on a shocking scene where English “Black and Tan” soldiers disrupt a meeting of Irish youth and murder one of them for refusing to tell them his name in English. Damien O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy) is a pacifist who finds such acts of martyrdom to be futile and destructive. But when he witnesses another act of English violence he finds himself drawn to join his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) in the IRA. At this time the IRA more closely resembles a guerilla army than a terrorist organization. The film follows the brothers throughout the Irish war of independence and into the Irish Civil War that followed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, a conflict that would place the two brothers on opposite sides of war.
This film works on one level as a great history lesson. I must admit a certain level of ignorance about the Anglo-Irish conflict depicted here, I knew conceptually of a group known as the IRA that did a number of bombings throughout the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, but knew nothing of the group’s origins that are shown here. I found this to be a fascinating exploration of the era. Loach clearly has negative feelings about the British occupation, but never takes sides as to whether violence is the correct way to deal with the problem. When the civil war comes one can easily relate to both those who want to cut their losses and live in peace and those who want to continue their fight for complete freedom. Loach consistently manages to find interesting ways to handle historical exposition throughout, like one scene where we quickly understand the affects of the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 and the people reaction to it by watching an audience react to a newsreel of the event.
The movie is no dry history lesson however; it also presents a great human drama. The characters in this film are three dimensional and well developed. The characters we meet at the beginning are very different by the end. One is reminded of Steven Spielberg’s excellent 2005 film Munich in that both films must deal with the character’s reactions to violence in terrorist situations and their frustration when violence only starts to beget violence. The difference here is that it is coming from the point of view of the “terrorists” rather than the army. When the two brothers find themselves on opposite side the view knows that we’re heading for tragedy. This is the stuff of Irish folk ballads like “Danny Boy”, in fact it id from one such song that the film gets its name.
The film also works on one further level as an allegory for the state of world affairs today. The parallels between this conflict and the current war in Iraq are uncanny. Ireland in the film is occupied by a well armed foreign force being fought off by a resistance group which could easily be called an insurgency. The film also serves as a chilling warning of what happens when a new state government is left to take over a state filled with angry people who are still ready to fight.
Loaches camera work is not flashy, this is not what you’d call “bravura filmmaking”, but this in many ways works in the film’s favor. The film’s deceptive blandness prevents it from artificially glorifying either side of the conflict. The violence depicted here goes against many modern conventions of screen violence. The killings are in no way stylized, nor are they artificially “gritty”, they are simply matter of fact. Loach does not glorify the violence or go out of his way to make it look horrible; there is surprisingly little blood here which is unusual for a film trying to show the “horrors of war.” The result is a brilliantly un-manipulative affair.
I’m not sure if I would have given the Palm d’Or to The Wind That Shakes the Barley given the competition, then again maybe I would. It is a very well written and intelligently crafted film about a very interesting subject. The film works on many levels and could inspire a lot of interesting debate. A great film from a veteran filmmaker.
**** out of four