Ken Loach's new film concerns Ireland's bloody struggle for independence in the pivotal years between 1920 and 1922. It has already been denounced as "repulsive" by the right-wing commentator Simon Heffer, who hasn't actually seen it but reasons that neither does he "need to read Mein Kampf to know what a louse Hitler was".
So Heffer's got the hump: could a movie ask for a more reliable commendation? Some might prefer to cite its winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes last month, a prize that had previously eluded Loach in spite of France's longtime reverence of him. The Wind That Shakes The Barley isn't, as it happens, one of his greatest films, beset by the same structural flaws as his Spanish Civil War drama Land and Freedom (1995), but it's driven by such incandescent purpose and acted with such passion that you'd very much like to give it the benefit of the doubt.
That there is doubt arises almost inevitably from the partisan character of Loach's film-making and the screenplay of his regular collaborator, the writer Paul Laverty. This is perceptible within the first 20 minutes, when a group of young Irishmen, returning home from a game of hurling, are rounded up by a squad of British soldiers - the notorious Black and Tans - and viciously intimidated for playing an outlawed "paddy" sport. One of the lads, who has the temerity to answer the commanding officer in Irish, is dragged off and beaten to death.
Later, a group of Irish Republican volunteers (including some of the dead man's friends) break into a house to seek reprisals on British informers - only these wretches aren't beaten or murdered, they're just given a warning about the next time they try to squeal. It won't be the last time you feel the writer's thumb on the scale.
One of those volunteers is Damien O'Donovan (Cillian Murphy), who forsakes his ambition of going to London to practise medicine after witnessing one too many instances of British thuggery. He takes the oath and joins his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) in a ragtag band of guerrilla fighters who mount counterattacks against the Black and Tans and their auxiliaries, usually filmed in short, chaotic flurries of action, such as the shooting of four soldiers in a backroom bar.
Loach tends not to be explicit in his portrayal of violence, which counts as an act of mercy when several volunteers are captured and Teddy is tortured by a soldier wielding a pair of rusty pliers. He prefers instead to explore the peculiar psychological torture of a young man - a doctor, at that - who has to kill his own kind, most poignantly in the case of a young farmhand who has betrayed the volunteers to the Brits. Damien has known the boy all his life, and can hardly bear to look as he pulls the trigger. "I hope this Ireland we're fighting for is worth it," he mutters as he walks away in self-disgust.
Set around the hills and hamlets of rural Ireland, the beauty of the landscape (lovingly photographed by Barry Ackroyd, another Loach regular) provides an ironic counterpoint to the brutality fomented within it. Laverty's script keeps stressing the fighters as honest sons of toil - train-drivers, ironmongers, farmhands - and at one point hints that the British soldiers sent to subdue were also members of the working-class, some of them having seen duty on the Somme. I wondered if that tension might be investigated, but Loach doesn't really see it in shades of grey: the Irish are, by and large, champions of truth and right, while the Brits are mostly foul-mouthed sadists.
It is only when the Irish Free State is declared and the compromises of the Anglo-Irish Treaty exposed that the film finally introduces an element of ambiguity, and suddenly we are watching a drama instead of a highly partial history lesson. As the debate heats up, Damien and Teddy find themselves on opposite sides of the fence, the former arguing the cause of a genuinely autonomous Ireland, the latter accepting complicity with a British government in order to avoid "immediate and terrible war".
The memory of an imperialist power intruding upon the affairs of a country and then leaving it mired in civil war has obvious contemporary parallels, though Loach isn't inclined to press them. He realises that the drama of brother bitterly at odds with brother has a pathos of its own, whether Ireland or Iraq is their homeland. Murphy and Delaney play the divided siblings very touchingly, particularly in the scene where Teddy recalls the moment in prison when Damien tried to protect him by offering himself as torture object in his brother's stead to the soldiers.
What Laverty's script hasn't managed to avoid are long debates in which the battle-lines between the pro-Treaty and anti-Treatyites are drawn, debates that reverberated for the rest of the century. There's nothing quite as tedious as the 20-minute argument about collectivisation that seized up the movement of Land and Freedom (was it only 20 minutes?) and certain lines land a shuddering rhetorical punch - Teddy, by pledging allegiance to the Union Jack, has "wrapped himself in the butcher's apron" - but there's still the persistent impression of a film telling us rather than showing us.
Perhaps that is simply the consequence of a film-maker grappling to communicate enormously complicated historical forces within a framework that divides the world between good and evil: it's the Loach way, and it keeps forcing his artistic instincts into the headlock of propaganda. This tragedy of Ireland's lost future will stir the blood on both sides of the argument, and if it generates more heat than light then let's be grateful that Loach still wants to raise the argument at all.Reuse content