movie film review | chris tookey

Wind That Shakes the Barley

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  Wind That Shakes the Barley Review
Tookey's Rating
4 /10
Average Rating
6.75 /10
Damien O'Donovan - Cillian Murphy, Teddy O'Donovan - Padraic Delaney
Full Cast >

Directed by: Ken Loach
Written by: Paul Laverty

Released: 2006
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: Ireland/ UK/ Germany/ Italy/ Spain
Colour: C
Length: 124

A Times columnist recently compared Ken Loach to Hitler’s favourite director, Leni Riefenstahl. That strikes me as pretty harsh. Leni Riefenstahl was far more visually talented. Our trendiest Trotskyite’s latest attempt to re-educate the masses has just picked up the Palme d’Or, the top award at the Cannes Film Festival. Ken Loach admits to being surprised. I’m astounded.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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The decision only makes sense if you see it either as a Life Achievement Award on the eve of Ken’s 70th birthday, or it’s intended as a political tribute to agit-prop that could be interpreted as an attack on American neo-colonialist oppression in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, it’s probably that.

Loach’s latest starts off in 1920 with foul-mouthed, aggressive British soldiers – is there any other kind? - terrorizing, beating and murdering innocent Irish villagers. Later, we will see our lads torturing captives and burning pretty cottages to the ground. Bad guys, every one of ‘em.

There can be little doubt that the British did commit atrocities in Ireland, and that the behaviour of the ill-disciplined “Black and tans” did radicalize the locals.

But Loach chooses to give us no hint of a clue as to why these British forces were in Ireland. There’s nothing about the Easter Rising of 1916, or the Irish willingness to collaborate with Germany during the Great War. The British are presented purely and simply, as an evil, occupying force, intent on overthrowing a democratically elected government.

Loach might have been wise at least to countenance other viewpoints. Most good political films do at least give the “devil” his due.

To illustrate Loach’s central theme that uncompromising socialism is the One True Way, he focuses on two brothers, both dedicated to fighting the British, but who find themselves on different sides once that battle is resolved with the founding of the Irish Free State in 1921.

It is a huge weakness of the picture that Loach’s sympathies are so overwhelmingly on the side of the more cinematic brother, the handsome, high-cheekboned, dewy-eyed Cillian Murphy (pictured), who plays the movie in a near-beatific trance, as though in imminent expectation of martyrdom.

The other brother is meant to be a charismatic leader and man of action, but he is played anonymously, and drearily, by Padraic Delaney. He isn’t helped by the fact that Loach and his writer Paul Laverty have no sympathy whatsoever for his more pragmatic, less socialistic approach to colonialism.

The principal faults of the film are identical to the ones that afflicted Loach’s diatribe about the Spanish Civil War, Land and Freedom (1995). Once again, his hero is an undercharacterised innocent to whom things happen, and the other characters have little chance to develop - they are political mouthpieces rather than people. In both films, the romantic interest is treated so perfunctorily that it fails to involve us.

Loach has no use for light and shade, no room for facts which don’t fit his hardline Marxist dialectic. He does not begin to address the sectarian dimension of the IRA’s campaign in Cork. He refuses to acknowledge the fanaticism and brutality of the IRA. The whole film comes across as not merely melodramatic, but blinkered and monomaniacal.

Pictorially, this is among Loach’s better works, well photographed in greens and browns by Barry Ackroyd. It doesn’t look as rushed or under-budgeted as most of his oeuvre. The sound isn’t great - and it’s hardly helped by the impenetrable accents of some of the cast – but George Fenton’s plaintive Celtic score serves the story well.

And there are traces of greatness in it. Though no Leni Riefenstahl, except in his willingness to defend the indefensible (in Ken’s case, the IRA), Loach is, in many ways, an admirable film-maker.

He has principles and he’s not afraid to express them, however unpopular they may be. He has a remarkable facility to draw moving performances out of actors - especially untrained actors. He has humanity and kindness when it comes to depicting ordinary, working people, though none when he portrays the British authorities, for whom he shows boundless (and often justified) contempt.

Loach is at his best when observing the minutiae of everyday life, often with wry amusement. I still treasure his direction of Brian Glover’s over-enthusiastic football game in Kes. The truest, as well as the most enjoyable, scene in his new movie is when he depicts an Irish messenger-boy trying to deliver an important message to eager members of the IRA, only to discover after a rapid ransacking of his pockets that he has dropped it. It’s a cute, funny moment, but it also has that unmistakable feeling of truth – the kind of messy, quirky truth that doesn’t usually make it on to movie screens.

But too much of Barley is in the same, sorry tradition as his infamous Hidden Agenda (1990) in presenting the British army as the forces of darkness, and the IRA as a cheery bunch of folk-singers, democrats and humanitarians. It’s unashamedly pro-IRA propaganda, so simple-minded and fanatically anti-British that it’s a miracle that Mel Gibson isn’t involved.

As a fan of at least some of Ken Loach’s work, especially Kes, Raining Stones and My Name is Joe, I can only hope that he will speedily recover his senses of humour and proportion.

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