Big emotion in a small-scale war movie
What is the opposite of an epic? Whatever it is, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” fits the definition.The film, directed by Ken Loach and written by Paul Laverty, takes on an epic topic, the conflict between Northern Ireland and Britain. The clash between the two countries – which was tagged as “the Troubles” relatively recently – has erupted periodically for centuries. The battle has encompassed politics, territory, culture and, most prominently, religion, as the lines are drawn between the Catholic Irish and the Protestant British. An indication of just how epic the battle has been is the wealth of popular culture – films, songs, poems and books – that has been spawned by the subject. Many people, particularly on the Irish side, have had their identities shaped to a large degree by the conflict.”The Wind That Shakes the Barley” shakes off this grand scale. The film takes place entirely in a span of several weeks in 1920, during what has come to be known as the Irish War of Independence. The action is set entirely in and around a tiny Irish village. The history of the conflict is mentioned only in brief passing; religion received even less attention. Director Loach avoids the temptation to add text to either the beginning or end of his film, briefing the audience on the prehistory or aftermath of the Irish War of Independence.
Instead, the film tells an intimate story of a small group of young men fighting for Irish self-rule – Republicans, as they are known. Heading the group is the devoted, idealistic Teddy O’Donovan (Pádraic Delaney), a natural leader. Somewhere toward the back of the group is his brother Damien (Cillian Murphy). Damien, a doctor, has been accepted at a top teaching hospital in London, and at the beginning of the film, is being accused of cowardice and a compromising attitude for his willingness to associate with the English.It takes only one ferocious incident to harden Damien’s loyalties. Following an innocent field hockey match, a squad of armed Brits invades the Irish village, on the pretext that the game was a “meeting,” and illegal under British rule. When one of the Irishmen won’t give his name in English – only in Gaelic – he is killed.As “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” continues with a series of attacks and counterattacks, the beliefs of the Irish Republicans become cemented: The British must be defeated, leaving Ireland to rule itself. The O’Donovan brothers are aligned in their purpose, and go to extreme lengths to defend one another.
When a truce is finally announced, however, it is a severe compromise, far short of full independence. And the O’Donovan brothers find themselves divided once again, only this time with their roles reversed. Teddy has become the realist, supporting the partial victory, while Damien argues the all-or-nothing perspective.The conclusion is tragic, moving – and, in its way, epic. Wonderfully acted, filmed and told, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” which earned the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, hints at bigger issues by finding such intense emotion in a small corner of the battlefield.And once again, my standard plea to filmmakers: Please recognize that Americans and Irish do not speak the same English. Captions would have added enormously to my comprehension of the film.
“The Wind That Shakes the Barley” shows Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
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