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Overall Rating

Awesome: 16.67%
Worth A Look75%
Just Average: 0%
Pretty Crappy: 0%
Sucks: 8.33%

1 review, 6 user ratings

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Wind That Shakes the Barley, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Almost manages to reduce brother against brother to a class struggle."
4 stars

There's a school of thought that says that every conflict comes down to economics at some level - the haves pushing around the have-nots and the have-nots rebelling. There's a certain amount of truth to this thinking, but taking it too literally can make for some relatively dry entertainment. Ken Loach's interest in presenting Ireland's fight against the British Empire in the 1920s as a fundamentally socialist rebellion - or at least, one that should have been - saps a little life from the film's last act. Not all, or even most of it, but the abstract nature of the conflict makes it somewhat less powerful than it could be.

It's a shame, because the film is, at its heart, a story about brothers, and squandering even the least bit of their role reversal is a shame. As the film starts, Cillian Murphy's Damien is apolitical; he's studied to be a doctor and is about to travel to a London hospital for his internship. Padraic Delaney's Teddy is not; he's in with the IRA. A front-row seat to various abuses by British and mercenary troops - a friend is beaten to death after refusing to give his name in English, his train's driver is arrested for following his union's edict not to transport armed troops - he joins up. Being a soldier in a secret army has its costs, though: Sometimes, you have to kill Irish as well as English; sometimes you can only hide and watch as troops burn your beloved's family home. And you may not agree on when victory can be declared.

Loach and the writer, Paul Laverty, make the audience work a bit in the early going. Teddy and Damien aren't introduced as brothers, and it's some time before they're revealed as such. The Irish accents are also laid on rather thick in the first twenty minutes or so - one audience member wished for subtitles, and it took me a moment to realize that the man killed early in the film was in fact speaking Gaelic rather than heavily accented English. I'm glad Loach (and the film's American distributor) chose not to use subtitles, as has occasionally been done when the accent is thick and the dialect working-class; soon enough my ear was trained. I suspect the accents were deliberately thicker in the early going to highlight the contrast between the two sides; once that was done, they back off a bit with a few exceptions (mostly older characters).

Cillian Murphy is the most familiar cast member to American audiences, and he keeps things relatively low-key. Damien is not, for the most part, a yeller, but rather someone who states facts or relates events baldly, letting the simple truth of the matter speak for itself. Murphy manages to do this and still get across that he hates what he's saying, even if he won't deny it. This tendency is what sells us on his transition from pragmatist to idealist, though; he's unable to hide from the facts.

Teddy is not quite so fully fleshed-out as Damien, though Padraic Delaney is also quite good. He is somewhat more concerned with fighting for an independent Ireland than why it's important, so Delaney's moments to shine come toward the end, as we see Teddy arguing for compromise and becoming the new authority. It's a nice job; Delaney shows us that it's not necessarily that power corrupts, but gives free reign to the corruption already present in all of us while still showing Teddy as devastated by where his and Damien's paths lead.

Liam Cunningham and Orla Fitzgerald play the other influences on Damien, the train driver and a girl from the neighborhood. Cunningham plays Dan principled and dignified without making him stuffy; he's a father figure the rest of the army would do well to pay heed to. Fitzgerald defines Sinead by her resiliency: She's not particularly delicate by nature, and even something reduces her to tears, we believe it when she comes back strong in later scenes. Sinead is one of the few female contemporaries of the IRA men we see, but she's not hyper-feminized or too good for the situation in order to compensate; rather, she belongs to this place and as such helps anchor Damien there.

Ken Loach is famously good with this type of character and environment, though usually his stories take place in the present day. He, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, and costumer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh capture the rough beauty of of 1920s Ireland, all subdued greens that link the people to the land, which is pretty but somehow never blessed with dazzling sunshine. All the settings and accouterments are a mix of poverty and pride - there's no electricity, but the thatched-roof cottages have an air of permanence and tradition to them; the clothing is handmade but neither ratty nor the flashy work someone looking to make manufactured goods look bad would choose. The British and their mercenaries, with their tailored suits and black uniforms, look like they wouldn't belong even if they weren't so vicious.

In a way, all that great work of tying the people to the land with color and language and verisilmitude makes the last act feel a little more hollow than it otherwise might be. The question of whether the Irish Free State will be completely independent or a dominion seems relatively minor if it gets rid of the soldiers who might attack at a moment's notice, and some of the more radically socialist ideas make Damien's faction sound as though they'll never be pleased. It's not as though this is sprung on the audience at the last minute, but it's rather abstract compared to what we've been seeing so far.

The film is still frequently fascinating to watch, and even that last act, which falters a little, still supplies drama in terms of brother fighting brother and the idea that today's freedom fighter can be tomorrow's oppressor.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15036&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/15/07 22:30:21
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2006 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/23/11 Ry Movie about Marxist revolutionaries directed by a Marxist. 1 stars
10/29/07 William Goss A politically rich yet curiously uninvolving tale of the Irish rebellion. 4 stars
6/27/07 JamesCole The best movie of the last decade 5 stars
9/28/06 AdamAnt Much more cinematic than Loach's recent films. Cillian Murphy doesn't do it for me though. 4 stars
9/20/06 Ancaster Film Fest Despite some difficulty with accents, a towering achievement. 5 stars
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