There has been fighting. Now, there is an occupation. Some cannot look away from the anger of the past. Some can -- and feel they must -- look to a different future. Men play games in the fields and laugh, then return to town to face armed soldiers who explain that any public gatherings, including their games, are illegal. One man resists the harassment. He is killed with casual brutality and the full support of the law. The survivors weep and rage, and know that their tax dollars pay for the troops who've left them bereaved.
Welcome to Ireland in the 1920's. Ken Loach's new film, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, is a portrait of a specific time in the life of a land and the specific choices in the life of a man. Damien (Cillian Murphy) is going to be a doctor; he's invited to London to study, an opportunity the likes of which can hardly be imagined, and can hardly be refused. His brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) is involved in the local Republican resistance, and can't quite understand how Damien can ignore the nation's struggle and live his own life; Damien can't quite grasp how Teddy can't know he's beaten. But events bring Damien to a choice, and soon the young doctor finds himself fighting alongside his brother. Both men are willing to kill and die. But how they kill -- and how they die -- will go far beyond what they've imagined might happen. ... Loach isn't just a talented and unique director; he's a committed socialist, and that's featured in his films like Bread and Roses and Land and Freedom. Working from Paul Laverty's script -- although, as with any Loach production, you can tell that improvisation is an essential element in the work, and that he's collaborated with the actors on the characters -- the struggle for Ireland isn't just a war against the English but against capital, as well. Old-school rebel Dan (Liam Cunningham) is perhaps the fiercest proponent of a war against not just the occupiers but also the owners; Dan was with Michael Collins, and steadfast in his beliefs. Murphy, Delaney and Cunningham all give great performances; also excellent is Orla Fitzgerald as Sinead, who works with Haverty's script and Loach's direction to make what could have been a thankless caricature into a vital, living performance.
Loach's film has all the suspense of a wartime film -- ambushes, clever plots, daring escapes -- but it also has a kind of gut-punch realism that's hard to shake. When the British torture one of the Republicans -- pulling the fingernails from his hands with pliers -- it's harrowing, terrifying and hard to watch; it's rare for screen violence to have the ugly, rotten feel of real violence, but Loach makes it happen. Wounds hurt; deaths are mourned. And characters make choices not out of a clockwork need to drive the plot, but instead out of who they are and what they believe in, and follow their convictions all the way to the grave at terrible cost. The Wind that Shakes the Barley may be a departure for Loach -- it's got professional actors, it's a period piece -- but in many ways it's a film that best demonstrates what makes him one of our greatest living directors.