THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY directed by Ken Loach (Ireland, 2006)

Ken Loach says “if we tell the truth about the past, we will have the truth about the present” but when strong emotions are stirred and the social and political stakes are so high, defining ‘the truth’ is no simple task. Undeterred, simplification of the issues is what Loach and scriptwriter Paul Laverty attempt in this movie.

The film takes its title from a mournful 19th Century ballad  and won the Palme D’Or at Cannes but met with vitriolic attacks in the British tabloids, many of the fiercest critics being those who hadn’t even seen the movie.

Set in County Cork in 1920, it begins with the birth of the IRA as a revolutionary movement and ends with the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and its immediate aftermath.

I’m not sure if Loach and Laverty were directly motivated by the feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’ but in portraying how ordinary people can turn into revolutionaries there’s no doubt that the aim here is to show politics in personal terms.

Michael Collins and James Connolly, two of the most well-known figures behind the Irish War of Independence are referred to but never seen as the plot centres on a made-up tale of two brothers Dr. Damien O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Pádraic Delaney).

Ken Loach & Paul Laverty

It boils down to a story of heroes and villains and Loach makes 100% sure there’s no mistaking which is which. The British baddies are easy to identify by their foul-mouthed speech, their rabid, indiscriminate violence and their uniforms.

In contrast, the idealised Irish wear civvies, speak softly, have female sympathisers and have to do their military training with sticks rather than guns.

It’s human nature to side with the underdogs and we’re not really asked to question whether the rebel’s cause is a just one or not. The British are so beastly then surely no right-minded viewer would root for them.

The unashamed partisan stance is what makes this such a flawed movie. The anti-imperialist agenda is so obvious that the story loses any sense of balance and resorts to cheap sentiment to win over the doubters.

Only briefly do we see some of the grey areas between right and left or, for that matter right and wrong. The trial of a loan shark is one of the few scenes to touch on the inevitable moral dilemmas. If the Sinn Féin kangaroo court fines an exploitative landlord it means that he is not able to continue giving vital funds to the IRA. Here the line between good and bad is much more blurred and, dare I say it, more realistic.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty led to the withdrawal of most of the British forces but the British monarch remained head of state. This compromise is presented as a divide and rule strategy that sets brother against brother.

We’re left in no doubt that the uncompromising Damien is the one to look up to but I was left feeling I’d been manipulated to reach this conclusion and it made me think that the background to this story is far more complex than we’re led to believe.

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