"I hope the Ireland we're fighting for is worth it," Damien (Cillian Murphy) says before executing his friend, Chris Riley (John Crean), whom he's known since childhood. In an attempt to protect his family from the British, Riley lost his life for betraying those who were trying to drive the British soldiers out of Ireland. Damien, although driven by his desire for freedom, is still haunted by what he did and clearly regrets going too far. He describes himself as being unable to feel anything. In The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Damien and his brother, Teddy (Padraic Delaney) have joined the small and poorly equipped band of Irish patriots fighting the British occupiers. This conflict has led to the moral dilemma where they find it necessary to execute their own countrymen. The situation gets even worse. When the British offer to give in to some of the Irish's demands and a truce is proposed, the brothers find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. Teddy agrees to the truce, but Damien rejects it.
The Wind that Shakes the Barley, veteran director Ken Loach's drama of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Ireland, is a compelling portrait of this early 20th century conflict. The fight to remove the British changes, from a war against an invading army to a civil war, as the compromise offered by the British divides the Irish. In this gritty film, Loach is sympathetic to the Irish cause. The British are depicted as oppressive thugs who use torture to extract information from prisoners. Damien, a physician, abandons his medical practice to join his brother in fighting the British but is appalled by the memory of his own questionable actions.
All the acting performances in this historical drama are excellent. Loach has collected a team of capable performers who are committed to doing their best in telling this story. Murphy, who played the part of a menacing air traveler in Red Eye, is a fine actor. We tend to forget that these are simply actors portraying a story about fighting for freedom, not actual freedom fighters. This film, which won the Best Film Award at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, has a strong beginning and becomes even more powerful as the story unfolds. Scenes frequently display the brutality of the British. However, despite his loyalties, Loach does not depict one side as being all evil and the other as good. The moral weaknesses of the Irish are also displayed. Unfortunately, the Irish do not consider using any method other than military violence in their fight against the British. We have to wonder how Ireland's history might have been different if the IRA had adopted some of the methods used by Gandhi to successfully drive the British from India.
Certainly one of the most interesting and strongest features of The Wind that Shakes the Barley is the writing, especially the dialogue. A fascinating verbal interaction takes place in the courtroom as a wealthy man is accused of extorting money from a poor woman. It's good to witness the rare event of a court of law defending the poor. These dialogues also take place when the Irish debate the next step in their attempts to throw off the British oppressors. Women participate as well as men and everyone is heard. However, in the church, when worshippers disagree with the priest, they are commanded to shut up or leave. This film refreshes our vision and dream of a society in which everyone can have a say in the kind of government they get, and reminds us that too often the church, which should be a fountain of freedom, simply tightens the screws of oppression. Since we can do nothing to change this violent history of Ireland, Loach's scenes of a government that includes participation by the poorest and weakest, is a valuable and sobering contrast to what we see today.
This film has a few weaknesses. It could use subtitles since the dense Irish brogues and thick British accents makes it likely that many U.S. viewers will miss significant portions of the dialogue. And, the final act of this film pushes the plausibility button a little too hard. However, The Wind that Shakes the Barley shows us that warfare can become addictive, and blind a country and its soldiers to the possibility of other resolutions. We're reminded that those who choose military violence as a tool for gaining their freedom inevitably destroy the freedom of others in the process. This film does not glorify or sanitize warfare, but depicts it as the repulsive act that it is. The unlikely ending, to its credit, reminds us that death is the chief winner of any war. The Wind that Shakes the Barley may be the strongest anti-war movie we've seen in a couple decades.