Barley: Brothers in Arms
The Toronto Star
16 March 2007
By Geoff Pevere
Ken Loach's film questions the meaning of righteous violence, why people embrace it and what becomes of their souls for doing so
Any objections that veteran social-realist director Ken Loach (Kes, Land and Freedom) has "simplified" the role of violence in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, his often searingly powerful fictional account of the origins of an Irish Republican Army flying column during the 1920s, ought to have been waylaid by a single scene.
It occurs when Damien (Cillian Murphy), the former medical student turned republican guerrilla fighter, learns that he is to execute a teenaged boy who gave names to the British Army. The boy is a lifelong friend and Damien is clearly stricken by the command. He knows it compels him to follow a path from which he can never return and he knows it puts his commitment to the cause of an independent Ireland before anything else.
Moreover, although we can only surmise this in the horror of the moment, he probably knows he'll carry the deed in his conscience until the day he dies. Indeed, when he is later asked by his brother Teddy (Padraic [sic] Delaney) to abandon the IRA and join the Irish who have settled for a compromise treaty with the British, Damien invokes the deed. If he agrees to the treaty, an act of warfare would become a simple act of murder.
It is this kind of calamitous moral dilemma—the idea of what constitutes righteous violence in the name of politics—that is at the heart of The Wind that Shakes the Barley.
The story of people galvanized into armed resistance (otherwise known as terrorism) by the occupation of their land by a foreign army, the movie has clear and pertinent parallels to the current historical moment. And while the movie has been predictably accused (especially in the outraged British conservative press) of either propagandizing for the Irish republican cause or metaphorically indicting the American presence in Iraq, both of these criticisms are ultimately much simpler than the movie itself.
Far from a film that glorifies violent resistance, it's a movie that struggles to understand the reasons why people will take up arms in the name of freedom. And what becomes of their souls for doing so.
Focusing on two brothers from Cork who will eventually end up on opposite sides of the conflict, Loach's movie chronicles the radicalization of a group of Irish villagers as the result of a friend's vicious torture and execution at the hands of the roving British military squads known as the Black and Tans.
Deciding to forgo his plans to study medicine in London for the cause, Damien is then caught up in the process of becoming a fugitive soldier in a war that only seems to grow more brutal and prolonged with each act of tit for tat retributive violence.
"I hope this Ireland we're fighting for is worth it," he says morosely on the morning he's told to kill.
When a treaty is signed stipulating nominal Irish self-governance but continued British occupation, Damien is forced to clarify his commitment, which he ultimately decides is only as permanent as the blood staining his hands. But this pits him against Teddy, who believes that lives will be saved by compromise. Does Damien really believe that there's any winning against the now combined forces of the British and the pro-treaty Irish? Perhaps not, but he also believes that there isn't any choice. On the morning he killed that boy, he sold his soul to the struggle.
Shot in the grey-skied hill country near Cork, Loach's movie features a cast of local actors and non-professionals and this, combined with the director's practice of shooting on location with minimal rehearsals, lends the movie a docudramatic immediacy that underscores the desperation of the circumstances: you can feel the panic, rage and fear of the participants, and there's a rare sense in the movie of history being less recreated than relived.
As Damien, the remarkable Irish actor Cillian Murphy (Redeye [sic], Batman Begins) reveals a percolating, stricken intensity his Hollywood roles have yet to tap. Even his eyes, as wide and blue as the surrounding ocean, seem to turn to ice over the course of the film.
Taking its title from a pro-independence poem by Robert Dwyer Joyce, The Wind that Shakes the Barley will never be mistaken for anything but a sympathetic portrait of people pushed to the point where they feel that violence is justified and necessary.
But sympathetic and simplistic are two different things, and the confusion of the two only proves the power of the idea.