I have to confess: seeing a film such as Ken Loach’s unbelievably gripping The Wind That Shakes the Barley is like a dream come true for me. In my late teens I became interested in the Irish nationalist movement in the early 20th century and throughout the following decades. I even subscribed to a Sinn Fein weekly paper for about ten years. The Wind That Shakes the Barley transported me to this time in such vividness that the extremely high hopes I had going into the movie was actually met. Trust me, that doesn’t happen a lot for me when I finally get to see a film I’ve waited a long time to see.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is set in the 1920s as villagers band together to fight the English occupying their country. The English, occupiers of Irish soil for centuries, attempting to rid the country of Gaelic language, culture and identity, do not come off good in this movie. To the Irish people we meet in this, the English were simply people who abused them. Loach makes no attempt to give them depth and that’s okay—this isn’t a story about them, it’s a story about the beginnings of the Irish Republican Army and the men who fought in this early struggle against a much bigger foe, their bravery and loss for fighting in such an undertaking.
The story follows a small group of men and women as they fight guerilla tactics against the English. Two brothers are at the core of the story. Damion is a hopeful doctor (Cillian Murphy--a great, young Irish actor) who turns his gentleness into an untapped rage and loyalty to the cause. Teddy is the older brother and is one of the military leaders of the small unit of men. The men have only each other and the land, homes and bonds they cling to. In any conflict such as this, fought on such an intimate level, you will see loyalty, betrayal, murder, beatings, torture, lots of politics and even a little romance and all of those are on display in The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
Loach has perfectly cast this film and he buries us so completely in the nuances and atmosphere of the time I was stunned at how good The Wind That Shakes the Barley was as it unfolded. Realism jumped from the screen as I felt I was sitting in stuffy rooms listening to people debate their cause or crawl around in the lush Irish grass training and learning tactics. That is the highest compliment for a film like this—to feel real, to feel honest, to feel it directly go to my heart as these people stand up to the oppressor that was the King’s Crown of England.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley won the Palm d’Or at Cannes in 2006 and I see why. It reminds me a lot of John Sayles’ 1987 film Matewan in many ways. Matewan was an unapologetic look at early socialism and unions based around the coal mine wars in West Virginia in the 1920s. The Wind That Shakes the Barley has that same kind of blunt, raw, one-sided passion (and also similar elements of the 1920s socialism) that endears me to it the same way I love Matewan.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is the clear frontrunner for the best film I will see in 2006. I don’t see how I will see anything that I like more than this wonderful little movie. It’s a rousing, intelligent, beautifully crafted movie that is highly, highly recommended.