“It’s not the will of the people. It’s the fear of the people.”
2006. Ireland. Unrated. Directed by Ken Loach. Starring Cillian Murphy, Padraic Delaney, Liam Cunningham, Orla Fitzgerald and John Crean.
I was really excited about Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley — it won the Palme D’or at Cannes, it’s a war movie (which I generally like), it stars one of my favorite actors, Cillian Murphy — everything just fit into the “overlooked foreign film” label. Not only would I enjoy the movie, but I could feel cool for enjoying it before everyone else. Unfortunately, it was not to be, for while it has its moments, it falls well short of being memorable.
The story of the Irish War of Independence and the following Irish Civil War, The Wind that Shakes the Barley follows two brothers, Damien (Murphy) and Teddy (Delaney) from the starts of the struggle against the English “Black & Tans” to the problems that follow. Teddy is the leader of the local faction of guerrillas and Damien eventually becomes his right-hand man before ideological struggles tear them apart. That’s about all I can say about the plot — it’s not that I don’t want to spoil anything, but there’s really not a whole lot to it. There are some character conflicts (which are essentially political debates spoken by the characters) and some poorly directed scenes of guerrilla warfare, but the plot is really thin.
So while the film looks great and the performances pretty solid, especially Delaney’s, the problem is a weak script and uneven direction. There is very little in the way of character background or development, with the main characters making decisions convenient to the plot rather than staying true to how they had been prior. Besides Damien, Teddy, their close friends Dan and Chris, all the other characters are interchangeable and totally wasted.
For example, Damien is so easily convinced to throw away his future as a doctor to join the guerrillas that you wonder why they even bother to make it an issue in the beginning, especially because the audience knows what he’ll do, otherwise there’d be no movie. It would make sense if he struggled with this decision the rest of the movie — but no, it’s barely even brought up again.
There’s also a lame, unnecessary romantic subplot that develops really quickly, essentially out of nowhere, and then flames out, thrown in there to try and add gravity to the film’s conclusion.
Even more disappointing is after a really terrific opening scene with the Black & Tans, filled with tension and drama, the remainder of the action and battle scenes are duds. The major ambush scene is so poorly directed and framed that you can barely tell what’s going on and additionally, there’s no explanation of why that particular battle or road or whatever is important to the campaign for independence.
I understand that by focusing the conflict on a smallish community it allows the audience to see how it affected everyday people, but there’s no sense as to what the war is about, other than the English are bad, the Irish are good, and then the Irish aren’t so good anymore. It’s an interesting history (I read about it afterwards) and if Loach had focused on one aspect — either the War of Independence, or the Civil War, instead of what feels like two movies in one — it may have been more successful.
As it stands, The Wind that Shakes the Barley is a mediocre film with some good scenes (mostly towards the beginning), good performances and beautiful shots of the Irish countryside. You’d be better off reading the history of the wars in question, then taking a trip to Cork, but assuming that’s not possible, I guess this film is an allright replacement.