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Title:The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Release Dates:2006
Running Time:124 minutes
Starring:Cillian Murphy, Padraic Delaney, Liam Cunningham, Orla Fitzgerald
Directed By:Ken Loach
Produced By:
Written By:Paul Laverty
Reviewed By:Ken Gallagher    Buy it at Amazon.com

Ken Loach's Cannes award-winning The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) has finally opened in the US, at least in a few larger cities. It is set in the era of the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921 (frequently referred to as the Black and Tan War) and the Irish Civil War of 1922-1924. It is not difficult to see references to past Irish films, but noted Left-wing director Loach's chief inspiration here is his own earlier war film, Land and Freedom (1995), set during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. The casts are largely different (although Barley screenwriter Paul Laverty plays an Anarchist militiaman in Freedom) but many actors in the two films resemble each other, the ideological issues are similar, and a number of scenes in Barley are shot from the same angle and even with the actors in the same poses as Freedom.

Loach's focus in both films is on local people in an isolated area. Since events in Dublin are never seen, Barley's plot occasionally needs to be moved forward by the awkward arrival of a telegram. Since the struggle in Ireland of the time often was between small groups in isolated places, this approach works better in Barley than in Land and Freedom, where it sometimes seems as though the Spanish Civil War was fought between 20 Anarchists and 20 Falangists. Since Barley is an ideologically driven film the plot is simple enough. Two brothers, Damien and Teddy, are drawn into the struggle against the British in 1920 and then choose opposing sides in the civil war between Irish factions that breaks out in 1922. Damien was originally planning to study medicine (similarly to the protagonist in 1959's Shake Hands with the Devil) and is the film's leading player. Sinead is Damien's nominal love interest, but she is mainly seen smuggling weapons and messages. There is a hint of a romantic rivalry between the two brothers but it is so barely-there that it may only exist in the imaginations of those who remember the Irish flashback scenes in Sergio Leone's Duck You Sucker (1971).

Damien and Teddy's district is patrolled by a squad of the Black and Tans (paramilitary auxiliary police) and a contingent of Regular British troops who appear to be from the York and Lancaster Regiment. Nearly all British and Tan NCOs and officers wear World War I campaign ribbons, generally for the 1914 and 1915 Star and the Victory Medal. Since some of the British excesses may be accounted for by the traumatization of the World War this may undercut Loach's intention a bit, but it seems deliberate, especially in a scene in a railroad station where a British senior NCO totally loses control and has to be restrained by a junior NCO. The same railroad scene introduces us to Dan, more or less the ghost of James Connolly. Dan was with Connolly in 1913 for the formation of the Transport and General Workers Union and the Irish Citizen Army and still wants to see a socialist, and not just an independent, Ireland.

Since Loach allows no major historical figures to appear, local characters bear a resemblance to or bring to mind better-known people on the national level. Teddy is bigger and bluffer than Damien, and somewhat like the historical Michael Collins. Damien may represent Eamon de Valera or Cathal Brugha. One of Teddy's lieutenants who also joins the Treaty forces bears more of a resemblance to de Valera, which would be a bit unfair, since de Valera was a Republican and was only reconciled to the Treaty with the British after the Civil War was over. The fiery brunette who presides over a local Republican tribunal may be an echo of Constance Gore-Booth, Countess Markiewicz, 1916 combatant, Secretary of Labour in the first Irish cabinet, and a tireless advocate on behalf of the poor.

From the title, one is expecting a bit more Irish music on the soundtrack, but the West Cork countryside is beautifully filmed, often in a manner to deliberately dwarf the mere humans who struggle against its backdrop. There are a number of harrowing scenes, but Barley is not an especially violent film by recent standards. There are good scenes of most of the major aspects of a rural uprising: roving rebel bands, mechanized and foot patrols by the authorities, ambushes and counter offensives, the civilian infrastructure of material support and weapon and message smuggling, and an indulgent local clergy. There has been no shortage of attempts to see in the film references to other times and places, with more recent events in Northern Ireland and current events in Iraq as leading contenders. However, with the obvious parallels to Loach's 1995 film, it might be suggested that Loach sees these events as having a timeless quality that contradicts any simple attempt to put them in an ideological framework. In both of his historical films Loach insists on depicting extensive ideological debates between the protagonists. In Land and Freedom the more moderate forces got rather short shrift, but in Barley both Republican and Treaty supporters get a full hearing. These scenes may drag on a bit for some people's tastes, but they are historically accurate portrayals of social struggle.

Despite its two-hour running time, many would like to have seen some depiction of events before 1920. However, the events of 1913-1916 have always been a bit of a problem for the British Left, since the mixture of social, cultural, and religious forces in Ireland of the time do not conform neatly to European models of class struggle. The British Left has always felt more comfortable in discussing the 1919-1921 period with its more readily identifiable agrarian uprising aspect. A director of Left-wing sympathies can hardly, in all honesty, end a film on a positive note these days. Loach made a bit more of an attempt in Land and Freedom, where it appears that if the struggle doesn't actually continue, there are at least still some keepers of the flame out there. Loach is sufficiently sensitive to the uniqueness of Ireland's history to allow the necessarily tragic story to unfold as it will. As Brad Pitt says in The Devil's Own (1997), "This is an Irish story, not an American one. It doesn't have a happy ending."

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