The Wind That Shakes the Barley
23 June 2003
By Peter Bradshaw
"A fine and powerful drama" ... The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
Here is the film about Irish republicanism that won Ken Loach the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes film festival, and the peahen shriek in the press could not have been louder if the European commission had succeeded in making Tony Benn lord president of the UK, with powers to raise income tax at the rate of 95% on all newspaper columnists.
Sadly, pressure of deadlines evidently meant the pundits involved were not able to see the film before letting rip, and the really strange thing is that if they had, they might have seen a different film than the one they were expecting. It is a period drama about the IRA's guerrilla war against the British in the early 1920s, and the civil war that followed the establishment of the Free State in 1922. It is not simply a denunciation of British beastliness, but an evocation of the futility and fratricidal despair Ireland encountered and somehow even embraced on attaining self-government—a predisposition encoded into the Free State's DNA at birth at least partly by the IRA's ruthless readiness to execute informers.
It is not Loach's best film, but it is a fine and powerful drama, with relevant things to say about what happens when an occupying force withdraws. It is a film about anger and bitterness, but there are, as it happens, characteristic moments of gentle, unworldly Loachian humour, as when a boy on a bicycle brings news of the British ceasefire to the Republicans and loses the bit of paper with the vital facts. Its insights into current politics are oblique and indirect, however, and the whole movie does look sealed and varnished into its historical time, compared with, say, Loach's 1990 film Hidden Agenda, which was so explosively contemporary. The Wind That Shakes the Barley looks light years away from contemporary Ireland, a prosperous EU country that has renounced its claim to the north, and whose government, like Britain's, enthusiastically supported the Iraq war. So why make this film now? Is it simply a case of reviving something that Conor Cruise O'Brien acidly called a neurotic tradition: The Opening of the Wounds?
The story told by Loach and his screenwriter Paul Laverty is a simple one. Cillian Murphy and Padraic (sic) Delaney play Damian and Teddy, two brothers in rural Ireland in 1920. Damian intends to leave Ireland to take up his medical studies in London. Teddy is a committed member of an IRA unit which has been exploiting its superior knowledge of the terrain to harry British troops in a guerrilla war. But Damian abandons his plans when he witnesses the swaggering violence of some Black and Tan troops in his village, and joins the war of independence. He is euphoric when the IRA's campaign brings Winston Churchill to the negotiating table with Michael Collins, but enraged by what he sees as the resulting sell-out. When the Free State comes into being, Damian sees it as necessary to continue the struggle against his own comrades—with terrible results.
So The Wind That Shakes the Barley is not just about how the British behaved, but about how the Irish behaved—and how they learned their behaviour in government both from their former imperial masters and from their masters' enemies. It is fatuous and tiresome to wonder if Loach and Laverty should have been less severe in their portrayal of the Black and Tans, in the interests of broadsheetbrow "balance"—as if it would be acceptable to present the broad facts of how the Black and Tans treated Irish villagers, so long as one soldier is shown suppressing a tear, or maybe sadly ruffling some peasant boy's mop of hair, or perhaps, as in David Lean's Ryan's Daughter, having a doomed affair with a local woman. Loach is not interested in splitting the difference between historical realities and lenient liberal scruple. In any case, the point of the film lies elsewhere, in the agony of what happened after 1922.
The Irish state emerges from this film as a collaborationist entity, which imbibed its habits of governing from its former rulers, who were able to sub-contract the prerogative of cruelty to a deeply uncertain new dispensation. Certainly, it is difficult to watch the torture scenes without thinking at least fleetingly of Guantànamo (sic) and Abu Ghraib, and it may be that Loach and Laverty are suggesting that the Treatyite spirit persists in the modern world—that a client state, at once enfeebled and bellicose, can be prevailed upon to carry out violent acts in the shadow of a greater power. The film's final cadences are ones of misery and bitterness and rage, and all this, coupled with what is sometimes a slightly inert dramatic language, do not make for an easy watch. But it is a finely made, finely acted piece of work. For this, and for his remarkable and uncompromising career, Loach deserves his golden palm.