Ken Loach has often complained that film critics discuss his work in aesthetic terms but don't engage with its political content. Yet his films must stand or fall on their effectiveness as cinema: otherwise, he might as well use books, or radio, or newsprint to convey his arguments. In fact, the commentators who engage most directly with the political substance of Loach's films often conveniently forget that they are cinema, and approach them as pure polemic - as witness the recent attacks by various columnists on his Cannes prize-winner The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
Film critics, conversely, must to some degree assess the films independently of their content: it's quite easy to agree with Loach's political viewpoints while feeling that he sometimes expounds them in cinematic terms that are leaden and hectoring. It's invariably their extra-political elements that make for Loach's best work: for example, the furious energies of the cast that made Sweet Sixteen (2002) so electric.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a particularly challenging case. While few of Loach's regular viewers would have problems accepting his views on the Spanish Civil War or Nicaragua, it's harder for the average liberal broadsheet reader to accept unquestioningly this film's presentation of the heroism of the early IRA and the brutality of British forces in Ireland in 1920. And whether or not the portrayal of British violence is accurate, the question that a critic must ask - at the risk of seeming a bourgeois aesthete - is whether this portrayal is dramatically effective.
The film begins in 1920 in the Irish countryside, where a group of men are playing a hurling match. A squad of British Black and Tans appears and charges them with illegal public assembly: one young man is summarily executed for answering them in Gaelic. Damien (Cillian Murphy), a young doctor, is at first reluctant to join his friends in the fight against the British, but after witnessing troops brutalise a train driver, decides to sign up with the IRA, along with his brother Teddy (Pádraic Delaney).
There is no getting around the dramatic problem posed by the extremity of the British violence in the film, regardless of any historical documentation that Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty might produce to support their case. A British interrogator rips out a man's fingernails while chanting, "This little piggy...", a platoon of raging thugs gleefully shears the hair of Damien's sweetheart Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald). But the question is not whether British troops did behave like this, but whether it furthers the drama to show them doing so.
Of course, it motivates Damien's decision to join an IRA flying column; and it is totally congruent with Loach's antipathy to militarism, to the way that uniform can annul an individual's conscience. Loach's sympathy is with partisans, with ordinary people who mobilise against a common enemy.
Even so, the extremity of the British atrocities shown is likely to make the viewer step back from the drama and ask Loach and Laverty to produce their evidence. At that point, the debate extends beyond the film and into newspaper articles and TV current affairs slots - and that, no doubt, is a situation the film is largely designed to provoke.
But purely in terms of dramatic logic, the extremity makes the film into something very different from the historical reconstruction that it appears to be. It turns it into opera - at least, brings it very close to the amplified quasi-operatic tenor of a historical film such as Bertolucci's 1900, or to the stylised theatrical structures of Brecht or John Arden.
The repetitive structures here are anything but naturalistic. There are three scenes of military brutality at the same farmhouse, twice by the British, the third time - with chilling irony - by a detachment of the Irish Free State troops who have replaced them, led by Teddy. Similarly, Teddy ends up as a uniformed captor in the same cell where he was previously a defiant prisoner.
Access unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime Video Sign up now for a 30-day free trialSign up
British brutality is treated as a given because it's not the film's main focus of debate: Loach and Laverty want the Irish response to be seen as righteous, all the better to analyse its contradictions. Once a rebel declares, "This is war," then he undertakes actions that might otherwise go against his nature: this is Damien's rationale for the execution of a gauche young informer. But what goes around comes around; without revealing the ending, the film's view of history entails a sort of tragic karma.
The film's true central issue emerges with the Treaty that established the Free State. It leads to a bitter rift: Teddy becomes a Free State officer, convinced that suppression of the IRA will keep the British from returning; the passionate socialist Damien feels that anything less than total independence is a sell-out. How the brothers come to be sitting on opposite sides of an interrogating table is the film's tragic trajectory - which by the end is so intensely involving that had Cillian Murphy and Pádraic Delaney both burst into arias, it wouldn't have been surprising, nor weakened the film's dialectic.
This is Loach's most provocative film in ages, and it's also among his most dramatically compelling. And it is so for reasons that transcend the strict limits of its argument: Loach might question the terms of this analysis, but if The Wind That Shakes the Barley demands to be seen, it's as much for its poetics as for its politics.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies