Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Wind That Shakes The Barley

I'll be honest with you folks, I resisted watching this one while it was in the cinemas, mainly because the Irish release was surrounded by more column inches than any other movie released in this country in a long long time. Also, given that it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, my on-line newspaper of choice also decided to give it voluminous coverage. All this journalism contributed to increasing my expectations of the movie, a scenario which can best be described by a truly scientific theorem of mine named the George Lucas Principle of Movie Expectations (or to use it's short-hand moniker, 'The Lucas Principle'). The Lucas Principle states that your enjoyment of a movie is a function of the quality of the movie, but is also inversely proportional to your expectations of it. Think 'Star Wars: Episode I': a good movie, but disappointing to anyone who grew up with the first three episodes (well, the fourth fifth and sixth, but you know what I mean). Or that second Matrix movie.. The Lucas Principle applied in both cases for me.

So not one to repeat my mistakes, I decided to let the dust settle on The Wind That Shakes The Barley, and surprise myself with it on DVD some random evening. I'm happy to say that, without the hype, without the high expectations, it is in fact a very good film.

Set against the backdrop of Ireland in the 1920's, the Easter rising has come and gone, but Ireland is still occupied by british forces. The dreaded 'Black and Tans' patrol the Irish countryside, breaking up organised gatherings such as GAA games, and generally intimidating, terrorising and killing the local people.

A proviso to you, reader, this r5eviewer is not for a moment attempting to be political, but it is worth pointing out that the director Ken Loach, himself an Englishman, is uncompromisingly ruthless in his portrayal of the savagery of the black and tans and the British army. The violence on-screen is of the most difficult type to watch, due to the high level of realism. Recently, the new James Bond movie attracted a lot of press due to a torture scene, well I can tell you, that scene has nothing on 'the Wind That Shakes the Barley'.

The story focusses on a group of friends, and in particular two brothers, played by Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney. Murphy delivers a very solid performance as Damian O'Donovan, and Delaney gives creditable support as Teddy, brother to Damian. Damian is a man of letters, and is keen to escape the rural hardship of life under the black and tan cosh and move to London, where he can train as a doctor, but events conspire to change his mind. Possibly against his better judgement, he joins his friends in the Irish Republican Brotherhood and decides to fight for Irish freedom instead.

As the story develops, we learn more about the involvement of every demographic of Ireland in the struggles of the 1920's. Young children deliver messages on behalf of the republicans. The women carry important letters and house and feed the young men training to take on the British army. Older parents and grandparents too, take their lives into their hands by feeding these young men.

Loach's depiction of rural ireland of the 1920's is lovingly recreated, and the skill with which the level of detail is rendered contributes greatly to the reality of the story being told. Never for a second did I question the depiction of the details I would recognise, due to being a native of these shores. The accents are Irish, the Irish language is spoken with confidence by natives, the songs are genuine, the locations are genuine and this all contributes to making the movie quite immersive. Loach sets the scene marvellously well, in as subtle a manner as you will see on celluloid. Not to embarass myself, or Loach, by comparing him to Patrick Kavanagh, but the small details of Irish rural life portrayed in this movie evoked (for me) images from 'Tarry Flynn', and this is something I particularly enjoyed about the film.

Yet, this level of subtle detail and texture all occurs in the background. While it is registering, the story continues to move forward at a relentless pace, involving the O'Donovan brothers more and more in the actual rebellion of Ireland. Again when it comes to the dialogue in the movie, the words of the main characters are not those of politicians, rather those of men who are passionate about having their own land, and leaving behind something for their children. There are no large-scale rabble-rousing speeches here, but there are lively debates between real people. The speeches are faltering, as if the men are venting forth opinions that are developing, fresh in their minds, but also close to their hearts. These scenes are among the strongest in the movie, and portray the tensions, traumas and conflicts caused by the imposition of the need for rebellion on the Irish people.

One criticism I would have of the movie is the portrayal of the British occupying force. I'm no history expert, but the black and tans are probably accurately portrayed as terrorising lunatics. That said, the British army are almost to a man portrayed as blood-thirsty condescending prigs, who regard the Irish people with such disdain, and voice this disdain so readily, that only an idiot would fail to rebel against them. They are reminiscent of Steven Spielberg's heartless black-and-white SS officers in 'Schindler's List' in the cold harsh simplicity of their portrayal. The British landlord character, too, is of this genre. While he shows a fragment of human emotion in his last moments in the movie, in the main he is a heartless authority figure, with provocative bile in his words. "Priest-infested backwater" is one phrase he uses, a good example of how to describe Ireland in such a way as to not make many Irish friends!

That said, Murphy and Delaney are given much more to work with, and their performances are strong. Their relationship continually evolves as the movie progresses, and never enters the realm of cliche as it so easily could in a story of this type.

So, while it is not perfect, 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley' is really rather good. It's pleasing to see Cillian Murphy's career develop, and if a movie like this does not increase his stature as a potential leading man, then something's up. Also, Padraic Delaney, Liam Cunningham and Orla Fitzgerald deliver creditable support, and hopefully their stars will also continue to rise as a result.

So, in accordance with the Lucas Principle, I would advise you to watch this one, but don't raise your expectations too high. As Cillian Murphy's parish priest might have said in the movie, "Gwan! Away with yerself, and quit yer messin!"

The Verdict: Equally credible and harrowing, expertly made, but slightly flawed.
The Rating: 7/10.


Tommy77 said...

Two points connected to Loach himself:

Wasn't the hurling sequence at the opening credits a homage to the famous football match scene in Kes (the one with Brian Glover's PE teacher)?

Also, wasn't there a heavy socialist angle (from Murphy's character and the train driver fella) which while a regular feature of Loach films, felt a bit overstated here.

Or maybe Loach is right and Irish history as it has been taught to us since has underplayed the Red aspect to the independence struggle.....

Paddy C said...

Re the historical relevance of the socialist movement, I can't claim to be qualified to comment, but I see your point about it being overplayed in the movie, not only was it given prominence in an important scene, it was referred to at least twice elsewhere... I had certainly never heard of Iarnrod Eireann's soviet past before anyway... (We're not there yet, comrade...)

And as to the hurling scene, it 'felt' like Kes alright, I was waiting for the coach to grab the sliotar and rampage through the defence... but these hurlers aren't exactly pee-wee soccer players!

Peter said...

I attended the premier of this one in Glasgow Loach's screenwriter Laverty was there for a chat with the audience after. Enjoyed this one despite Teddy reading his lines off the back of his hand...

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