A large contention at last year's Cannes Film Festival was held over the Palme D'Or recipient, which had been handed to the Dardenne brothers for L'Enfant in 2005. Upsetting expected winners Volver
, and Marie Antoinette
at the 2006 Cannes fest, Ken Loach
's The Wind That Shakes the Barley ended up taking the prize. Stridently political in its telling of the birth of the IRA and its eventual separation into factions, Loach has been working towards this for most of his life. His films have always been political but they've been hidden under the guise of modern social workings. Here, for better or for worse, the politics are coaxed to the foreground and the story braves harsh waters to balance the politics and the humanity of its subject matter.
Loach casts the narrative birth of the IRA at the feet of two brothers: Damien and Teddy O'Donovan (Cillian Murphy
and Padraic Delaney
, respectively). Damien's passive-aggressive nature towards the Black and Tans (the British Army) quickly gets sucked into Teddy's volatile rage when he witnesses a beating at a train station, moments before he was to leave for med school. Through torture (nail-pulling that makes Syriana look like a Friday afternoon in the Hamptons), shootouts, and political ebb and flow, the IRA fights dirty for independence. When the Anglo-Irish Treaty is signed (giving Ireland Free State/Dominion status), the IRA splits into the Old IRA (Damien's boys) and the National Army (Teddy's Treaty-friendly pack). Article continues below
Though they are brothers in the film, there's an interesting way in that there is little familial talk or emotion that goes on between Teddy and Damien. Loach downplays their brotherhood and keeps the movie focused on the country's struggle rather than the personal one. This is not to say there aren't moments of human drama: Damien's relationship with the fiery-haired Sinead (an outstanding Orla Fitzgerald) gives a brief respite from the political strife. But even here, the main attraction is their political stance; if Damien had gone off to med school, Sinead wouldn't be holding any flowers.
Just as much as it's about the echoing rift between the IRA and the National Army boys, Loach's film also holds ground as a film steeped in the epic struggle between imagery and story. Phenomenally shot by Loach regular Barry Ackroyd, Barley reaches moments of grace in imagery (hiding in the weeds before an ambush, being caught by the Brits in the emerald dome of a forest) but these moments are constantly rushed to get back to the politics of the situation.
Both Murphy and Delaney fight to etch their characters as more than political spheres of thought, but when the split begins in the film's second half, it becomes harder and harder to see them as more than two distinct sides of a coin. Ultimately, the politics outweigh the poetry but we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Barley succeeds despite its hesitations and far-reaching ambition to tell such a large story in such modest terms. Ken Burns would struggle to contain this. You can't knock Loach's passion though; it's what keeps the film's head out of the clouds.