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A war movie with a difference

Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, set in 1920s wartorn Ireland, brilliantly captures a community’s struggle to make and shape history.

John Fitzpatrick

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Ken Loach is a filmmaker with a deep interest in history and politics, and so far as the latter is concerned he has always disdained to conceal his own views. Good for him. What shines most attractively through his films, however, is an even deeper interest in people, and an abiding conviction that we should pay particular attention to those people who do not usually find the centre of any stage.

Looking back over his prolific years since 1990, the films are as likely to be about labourers on a London building site, or families struggling on a housing estate in Lancashire, or individuals battling the drink and drugs in Glasgow as they are to be set in the Nicaragua of the Sandinistas or in the midst of the Spanish civil war. Indeed, we should recall that 40 years ago he made his mark with a film about a homeless mother whose child was taken into care, and followed up with a story about a young boy in Yorkshire whose heart stirred for a bird. It is, in fact, when he has taken on the historic conflicts, or focused on ‘ishoos’ such as rail privatisation in Britain or economic migrancy in the US, that his characters and their dramas have sometimes struggled to come fully to life.

His latest, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, is, I think, his finest film to date, and a richly deserving winner of the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It is another collaboration with his regular scriptwriter Paul Laverty, and is set during the War of Independence and Civil War in Ireland in the 1920s. We do not, naturally, get an account of Michael Collins or Eamon de Valera or anybody else that we might have heard of. The story picks out a small rural community in remote west Cork, and in particular a young man who has just qualified as a doctor and is about to emigrate to seize his glittering prize in a famous London hospital.

At the heart of this film is discussion and debate, and that is a rather wonderful thing in itself. At the heart of the debate are questions about the relationship between the private and public spheres, about convictions and ideals, and whether or not and when we should fight for them – about the terrible price we might pay, but also about the compelling reasons for doing so.

The debate centres on Damien (Cillian Murphy). What should he do? Should he join the IRA or go to London and pursue a medical career? Should he execute a spy from his own ranks, or let the lad he has known all his life slip mercifully away? Should he accept the Treaty, the oath and partition as the best deal available, or fight on against his own countrymen – including his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney), a comrade during the War of Independence but then a foe in the Civil War? Should he maintain the position he has now assumed, or retire from the public fray to work as a local doctor and raise a family with his beloved Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald)? In the song of the title (written in the nineteenth century by Robert Dwyer Joyce, himself a doctor), a young man agonises over the choice between settling down with his girl or joining the rebellion of the United Irishmen of 1798: ‘’Twas hard the mournful words to frame / To break the ties that bound us / But harder still to bear the shame / Of foreign chains around us.’

Loach tells the story with a breathless succession of rather self-contained scenes – over a couple of hours. It is a bravura performance. Nearly all of them carry a terrific punch. He is a master of the naturalistic mode, whether in earnest domestic scenes or in lethal combat. We are spared nothing of the brutality of all sides; at no point does Loach allow us to flinch from the horror, at the price to be paid. The larger story is of course both epic and tragic, and no treatment of it could duck the consequences of that. Loach, however, manages both to tell the well-known catastrophe, and also to transcend it, to confront us with the intensity of how such hard times and desperately hard choices are actually lived.

He makes marvellous use of the glowering countryside, and revisits his locations to ram home with great effect the bitter ironies that changed circumstances did indeed bring to this conflict. This is most obvious with the violent visitations to the farmhouse home of Sinead, but it is a powerful trope throughout the film – in the barracks, on the main street, out on the hills. A maid twice leads us through the forbidding shadows of the hall in the ‘big house’ to wait outside the study of Sir John Hamilton – the first time with a farm labourer who Sir John is about to hand over to the British, and the second time with a squad of IRA men who have come to take Sir John away.

Only one scene wobbles seriously, when a British army officer rather too hysterically, and instrumentally, explains to Damien the hardships endured by the Black and Tans – the British mercenaries sent to crush the IRA in the War of Independence – in the trenches of the Somme during the First World War. For the rest, however, Loach and Laverty very deftly pack around the enthralling progression of the young man a full account of the politics of the period. The cast, especially Orla Fitzgerald and Liam Cunningham, give great performances. Only Padraic Delaney struggles somewhat in the role of Damien’s brother, because the part is significantly underwritten given its importance to Damien’s development. Perhaps Loach succumbed here to a little too much symmetry, but what else could bring home quite so powerfully the truly awful nature of the Civil War? One feels too that their relationship would have been colder, more bitter and more repressed than the rather teary, emotional stand-off shown here. In any event, Cillian Murphy is quite outstanding in bringing us a thoroughly convincing account of a young man – kind, shy, conceited, intelligent, stubborn and proud – trying to do the right thing.

It has been said that Loach gives too much prominence to the socialist politics of the IRA, especially those on the anti-Treaty side. To be fair, he makes it very clear that Dan (Liam Cunningham), the champion of that here, is not exactly typical of this milieu. It is true that the fortunes of such revolutionary nationalism as flourished in those times really fell with James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army in 1916. On the other hand, it does no violence to the history to record that this strand was still represented in the republican movement. There were, for example, several workers’ seizures of creameries, farms and gasworks in this period, and so-called ‘soviets’ popped up in Limerick and Cork.

This debate, urged on by those who want a new social order and not just a new flag, is brought to life in a striking scene in a Sinn Fein courtroom, with real weight given to the protagonists on either side. It is the precursor to the magnificent set-piece debate that is at the heart of the film. The local IRA convenes to decide its position on the Treaty. The men and women that we have got to know sit around a large room and one after another they speak out, for and against. All the arguments are rehearsed. We must fight on – for the martyred dead; against the oath; for the Catholics in the North; for a socialist republic. We must take this deal for now – we are faced with immediate and terrible war; the British are in a corner too; we can regroup later; it would be a betrayal of the martyrs; the border is still open to discussion. The debate – it never stops – is later taken on to the next stage in the local church when the parish priest threatens the anti-Treaty side with excommunication.

It is an exhilarating expression of people being utterly gripped by one of those real, palpable, watershed moments. ‘Lads, we have freedom within our grasp’. says one. ‘We’re that close. It’s just one inch but it’s still out of reach. And if we stop now, we will never again…regain the power that I can feel in this room today. And if we stop short now, never in our lifetime…will we see that energy again. Ever!’

The storm of criticism of the film from a few sources in the British press is so ignorant that it is probably best simply to ignore it. One example, perhaps. The Sunday Telegraph reviewer begins her piece with a slight: ‘Ireland, 1919. An idyllic amateur hockey match.’ Seven words, three solecisms. Hockey? Hurling is a game so old in Ireland that it is listed among the boyhood deeds of Cú Chulainn in the first rescension of the Táin Bó Cúalnge (see the late eleventh-century manuscript Lebor na hUidre, in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin). An idyll? That was hardly the point of this opening. Hurling was one of the crucial vehicles for the development of Irish identity and nationalism, especially since the foundation of the GAA, the Gaelic Athletic Association, in 1884. And 1919? The British government did not even start recruiting Tans (who arrive in the film at the end of the match) until January 1920.

This is not an anti-British film. It is not really about the British. One wants to say to these reviewers, ‘This film isn’t about you. It is about some Irish people, and some issues that concern all human beings.’ Of course, one does understand that if having a walk-on role is hard enough to bear, being represented by the Black and Tans and Auxilaries must be, well, beyond the pale. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that what Loach’s critics find hardest to take is his sympathetic treatment of someone who believes that there are things worth fighting for and making sacrifices for, and his touching depiction of a group of people who have the temerity to engage, as it were, on equal terms with the challenges of their times. Not to be missed.

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