Ken Loach‘s camera pans and tilts its way through “The Wind that Shakes the Barley,” as though its wandering gaze is in search of a fixed center, adrift in a world of shifting allegiances and gruesome violence. The off-the-cuff naturalism of Loach’s technique proves something of a blessing here, blunting the impact of the film’s brutality and giving it an intimate, human scale. “Barley,” which was a surprise Palme d’or winner at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, looks at the anti-British uprising in Ireland in the early 1920s through the experience of two brothers, Damien and Teddy O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney). Their ever-morphing attitudes give Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty a way into the broader conflict, but the focus here remains resolutely personal, on how ordinary people experience political occupation and the devastating consequences of violence perpetrated by people on both sides of the cause.
When “Barley” opens, Murphy’s Damien is preparing to head to London to study medicine. After witnessing a vicious act committed by the Black and Tans, Damien instead opts to join his brother in the Irish resistance. This straightforward setup sends the brothers down predictably opposing paths, as Damien’s commitment to the Irish movement grows more resolute while his brother begins to equivocate. Their transformations play out in roughly sketched, perhaps deliberately underwritten scenes. Were it not for the efforts of Murphy and Delaney, “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” could easily suffer from its thin characterizations and somewhat conventional plotting, but both actors bring a genuine, earnest quality perfectly suited to Loach’s improvisational sensibility. There’s an honesty to the filmmaking and especially to their performances, an intensity born not of grand political statements but rather out of the stuttery, tentative way the characters articulate them.
“The Wind that Shakes the Barley” stirred quite a bit of controversy in Britain on account of its apparent ideological biases. The film will undoubtedly be freed from many of these considerations when taken outside of the British context, though it’s possible, and probably likely, that American audiences will instead see echoes of the Iraq occupation here, since “Barley” so effectively scrutinizes and humanizes the impulse towards violent resistance–though not terrorism per se–in the face of the cold political calculations of an imperial power. We may accept or reject this political position, just as we may quibble with “Barley”‘s shortcomings, but there’s no getting around the power of Loach’s vision. Uneven but provocative, and deeply unsettling, “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” is a vital and engaged piece of filmmaking–like the similarly acclaimed work of Paul Greengrass, Loach’s film exhumes a difficult moment with an unwavering commitment to naturalism, valorizing human experience above political history. Unlike Greengrass’s “Bloody Sunday” or “United 93,” though, Loach’s film has something far more precious, and far rarer–real heart.
[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly, and education coordinator at the Museum of the Moving Image.]