A Western occupying power faces near total opposition from the local population (recently manifested in an overwhelming popular vote for independence) and responds with brutal military suppression, spurring on a countrywide resistance movement reaching down to the grassroots. The growing violent insurgency, in turn, makes the occupiers bear down harder on the population as a whole, who naturally give aid to the imperial enemy. In the spiraling violence, traitors are dealt with in the harshest terms, while the empire’s soldiers (seeing potential enemies and racial inferiors everywhere in a land where they are not wanted) easily become ruthless and vicious to all. Homes and businesses are smashed open, families terrorized and humiliated, street battles rain bullets around women and children. The torture of detainees is routine.
For all their disproportionate might, the occupiers’ fight is a losing one against a guerilla insurgency with popular support. The logic of empire dictates the next step: indirect rule through the granting of a partial, circumscribed independence regulated by homegrown military and government proxies. The result is equally logical: a civil war among former allies as the insurgency divides between those who will cooperate with the new regime and those who will fight on for full independence.
This scenario, the basis of Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winner, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" (opening this week), refers to Ireland from 1920 to 1922, but clearly resonates with matters more recent and closer to home.
That’s hardly unintentional or unexpected coming from the veteran director, whose 1995 film "Land and Freedom" (about the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s) had broached similar themes, and in a similar vein, as a way to fruitfully bring history to bear on a moment of rising rightwing extremism. Even in his historical dramas, the English independent filmmaker best known for well-crafted, realistic, working-class stories such as "Riff-Raff" (1990) and "Raining Stones" (1993) has never shied away from the most pressing political issues.
Not that the Irish independence struggle against British imperialism is a mere stand-in for Iraq. The film’s subject stands in its own right, and indeed remains in Ireland and the UK very much alive and contested throughout more than 80 years of troubled history (as the sometimes vitriolic furor the film inspired in Britain’s right wing press might suggest). Loach brings the subject to the screen brilliantly, garnering excellent performances while shooting on location in rural County Cork, and drawing as usual on the meticulous work of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd as well as a pool of local talent for many of the leading and supporting roles. The period, the predicament, the politics are all utterly palpable.
Still, the power of "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" lies in the immediacy of the subject matter of war, occupation, and empire — especially in the way Loach brings these themes to bear locally, on the lives of ordinary persons in a specific community. The film’s very title, taken from an old rebel song (given voice early on at the funeral of a young man beaten to death by British soldiers), speaks to the specificity of Loach’s approach as well as the historical roots and branches it would like to stir.
The film’s fictional story of rank-and-file resistance fighters in a colonial war centers on a young medical school graduate named Damien (Cillian Murphy) who reluctantly gives up a residency in London to join his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney), a republican guerilla leader, in the armed resistance to British occupation. They fight together until a fragile truce in 1921, and a brief summer of rejoicing, give way to a disastrous falling out between those like Teddy who support the semi-independent Irish Free State and the economic status quo, and those like Damien who insist on continuing the struggle for a fully independent and socially equitable Ireland.
The disagreement between the brothers mirrors the schism at large a bit neatly. As a leader in the Free State army, Teddy now hunts down his former comrades who insist on continuing the struggle. "If we don’t stop them," he reasons, "the Brits will be back." Damien tells his brother the treaty he defends makes him little more than servant to the British Empire, leaving him "wrapped in the Union Jack: the butcher’s apron."
The depiction of the British "Black and Tans," meanwhile, is wholly unflattering, though it is all too easy to accept these days that an occupying army is capable of the aggression, racism, and cruelty the film depicts, especially where the population resoundingly resents its presence. As the film shows, opposition to the British was deeply entrenched and popular, supported by ordinary people and their organizations. It is after witnessing some British soldiers furiously pummel a railway driver and elderly conductor because the Irish railway union refuses to transport British military personnel or equipment that Damien finally decides he must give up his medical career abroad and join the local "flying column" of the IRA. Damien later meets the train’s driver, Dan (Liam Cunningham), in a prison cell, where he learns the older man, a Dubliner, had been a member of James Connelly’s Citizen Army. Connelly, the Irish socialist and republican martyr of the 1916 Easter Rising, had already stirred Damien’s imagination in school, where he came across the speeches that Dan was present to hear in the midst of the fight. He and Dan seal their friendship reciting together a memorable line of Connelly’s. Idea and action thus come together in a colonial dungeon.
It’s a decisive identification the film makes between Connelly and Damien, who will fall out with his brother over the Anglo-Irish peace treaty of 1921 and the Irish Free State it creates, insisting with Connelly that true sovereignty requires control of the land and resources of the people. Damien sees the Free State as acquiescence to a bourgeois order overseen from afar by British masters. (Damien also meets the same fate as Connelly at the hands of the ruling power, with the added twist that it is by then his brother who must carry out the order.)
The choice of making literal the fratricidal aspect of civil war admittedly skirts a cliche, but in it Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty (who has worked consistently with Loach since 1996’s "Carla’s Song") exploit some real dramatic possibilities (perhaps approaching the melodramatic or contrived only in the final scene between the brothers). At the same time, the conceit inevitably collapses a more complex division onto two central personalities. No doubt a less intelligent and conscientious filmmaker would have sacrificed much more in that bargain, but Damien’s principled and stirring channeling of James Connelly’s socialism, for instance, makes for a simplistic image of IRA nationalism in general. One probably has to take him less as representative than as ideal (albeit a historically rooted one).
Ireland’s sectarian bloodletting would continue far past what unfolds here, at the start of the Irish Civil War — a future grimly written in the slow horror of the film’s climactic fratricide, which unfolds with a stubbornly formal cruelty only military organization could muster, and underscoring just how far gone the parties to the conflict are. Loach has never been a director to shy away from an ambiguous or downbeat ending. But as in his previous work, and with an assurance that shows him in top form, he also takes great care to give us the social and political context — in this case the fabric of interests and woeful strategic logic operating on both sides of a colonial conflict — that ensures his particular, human-scale stories reverberate with our contemporary world. In that the avowedly leftwing filmmaker no doubt expresses a strategic hope. In fact, if Damien and James Connelly’s socialism makes for somewhat incongruous history at the center of the film, Damien’s words give a fair assessment of the filmmaker behind him. "I am not a dreamer," he insists to brother Teddy. "I am a realist."
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