Wind That Shakes the Barley, The: Ken Loach’s Political Tale of Tow Brothers

Cannes Film Fest 2006–Vet British director Ken Loach, a socialist filmmaker with a consistent political agenda, has shaped his four-decade career along two poles: Movies about various aspects of the subjugated working class in Britain (“My Name Is Joe,” “Bread & Roses”), and movies with a more explicit political agenda, such as “Hidden Agenda,” “Land and Freedom,” about the Civil War in Spain, and now “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” about the British-Irish conflict circa 1920-2.

While Loach’s movies are honest, wearing their hearts on their sleeves, they are often too conventional as narratives and too moderate as great cinema. If his movies seldom create political stir or artistic controversy, it’s largely due to the helmer’s mild-mannered approach, a major problem in this particular movie, and the fact that they fail to appeal to large audiences, in Britain or elsewhere. No movie, as honorable and sincere, could become controversial if it doesn’t touch a chord with the mass public.

Loach’s last two or three movies (“The Navigators,” “Just a Kiss.” “Tickets”) were weak and thus barely left any imprint. In general, Loach’s work is rarely discussed (if shown) in the U.S., a climate not particularly hospitable to leftist films in the first place, though Loach’s colleague Mike Leigh (“Life Is Sweet,” Secrets & Lies,” “Vera Drake”), who shares similar socio-political concerns, has done better, at home and abroad, perhaps due to the emotional tone and high-caliber acting in his movies.

As the first competition entry to be shown in the 2006 Festival de Cannes, “The Wind” was greeted with mixed critical response. However, flawed as it is, for me, the new movie represents a return to form for Loach, who has here made a sincere, semi-engaging political melodrama that establishes direct links to “Hidden Agenda,” in 1990 and “Land and Freedom,” in 1995. For reasons explained below, “The Wind” is the weakest of the trilogy.

“The Wind” suffers from at least two problems. While paying tribute to the diversity of political discourse, not only between the British and the Irish, but also within the Irish themselves, the film ultimately reduces its complex debates to an interpersonal melodrama, in which two brothers are pitted against each other, a conventional format that trivializes the particular conflict.

Second, despite the particularities of the historical incidents, Loach resorts to broad generalization about Civil Wars and stereotypical characterization of the “villains,” in this case the Brits, most of whom are nameless and depicted as ruthless brutes. That the portraiture may be realistic doesn’t resolve the dramatic problem of “one-sidedness” and the manipulative ease with which audiences are asked to root for the Irish rebels.

Hence, “The Wind” runs the risk of falling between the cracks. Middle of the road, it’s neither entirely convincing as a political expose nor as a family melodrama of two brothers and the price they pay for holding onto their personal convictions.

It’s 1920 and protagonist Damien O’Sullivan (Cillian Murphy of “Red Eye” and “Breakfast on Pluto”) is about to leave his Irish village to become a doctor in a London hospital. During a game of hurling, his peers raise some questions about working for the Brits, but their comments are mild. However, later on, his fate is shaped by two incidents of British brutality that prevent him from leaving.

First is Damien’s trip to the farm owned by Peggy (Mary Riordan) to bid adieu, and the sudden invasion of the place by a British “peacekeeping” force that calls itself “Blacks & Tans,” that bans all meetings and games. Predictably, the encounter turns hostile, and Peggy’s grandson Micheail (Laurence Barry) is beaten to death in a brutally harsh bar scene that reveals Micheail’s lack of command of English.

Deciding to stay and fight, Damien joins the Irish Republican Army, which had already recruited his activist brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney). The IRA functions in small guerrilla groups, which steal weaponry from police barracks and occasionally kill some British officers.

In retaliation, the British capture and torture Teddy and his group. However, saved from execution, the brothers reunite, only to be again divided by the unpredictable turn of political events. After signing the Anglo-Irish Peace Agreement, the Irish Free State is established as a dominion within the British Empire. While Teddy supports the Free State, Damien is still committed to the IRA’s ideal of forming a totally independent Irish Republic.

It’s a fascinating period in Britain-Ireland history, but it’s not convincingly dramatized, and many viewers will be left in the dark as far political debates and secondary characters are concerned. The story follows the group through the truce that was declared in 1921 and the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in 1922 that created the Irish Free State out of 26 counties, with six other counties forming what became Northern Ireland and remaining as part of the U.K.

In their insistence that the Irish Free State remains part of the Empire, the British demand oath of loyalty to the king. Those who view the treaty as a path to peace, like Teddy, embrace the British uniform. Those like Damien who insist that freedom will only come with extreme republicanism, continue the fight.

However, the political odysseys taken by both brothers become too predictable and even symmetric: As Damien loses his initial pragmatism and become more idealistic, Teddy begins to doubt his early convictions, which he is now ready to compromise.

Trying to do justice to both sides of the camp, Loach devotes admirable attention to the arguments and counter-arguments, but gradually, the interpersonal drama is lost in the complex maze of broad political forces. Loach’s humanity is always in evidence, but his yarn becomes too conventional, and he can’t conceal his sympathy for the rebels and hatred of the Brits.

Most of the film’s flaws are in the writing, by regular collaborator Paul Laverty, and Loach’s strangely dispassionate direction. You can almost put your finger at the point where the story telling loses its grip and begins to plod–it’s right after the truce is signed. From then on, Loach devotes too much time to political debates and speeches that will not mean much to non-British viewers.

The acting is serviceable but not great, particularly Murphy who with his weird look lacks the passion that Ian Hart conveyed so realistically in a similar role in “Land and Freedom.”

Perhaps worried that his cast is too male-dominated, Loach and Laverty throw into the text the character of Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald), Damien’s girlfriend, but she has nothing interesting to do or to say, and once again, the film suffers in comparison to “Land and Freedom,” in which the romantic angle was more prominent.

Inevitable comparison will be made with “Hidden Agenda,” which also depicts the cruel British “shoot to kill” policy in Northern Ireland, and with “Land and Freedom,” which also deals with commitment to the “right” cause and the price paid when ideals are defeated. Both thematically and emotionally, “Hidden Agenda” and “Land and Freedom” are more intriguing and powerful pictures than “The Wind.”

That said, “The Wind” is mounted on a grander scope than Loach’s previous political films, with impressive production values courtesy of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, production designer Fergus Clegg, and particularly composer George Fenton.