“I tried not to get into this war, and did; and now try to get out, and can’t.” — Damien O’Donovan, in The Wind That Shakes the Barley
The Navigators (2001) marked Ken Loach’s highest attainment in a long career, but The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which won Loach the 2006 Palme d’Or at Cannes, surpasses it. It encompasses both post-World War I periods of conflict in Ireland, England’s oldest colony, the first (1919-1921), when Irish rebels sought freedom from British rule, culminating in the 1921 settlement establishing the so-called Irish Free State, and the second (1922-23), when Irish rebel holdouts contested this settlement for its compromises, leading to bloodshed between the two Irish factions. (Michael Collins led the Irish against the British in the first period and against those who embraced the Anglo-Irish Treaty in the second.) In effect, Loach’s film, which has been beautifully written by Paul Laverty, provides a grass-roots glimpse of the infancy of the Irish Republican Army. As Loach’s “what if” political thriller Hidden Agenda (1990) reminds us, the Irish have been fighting for their freedom for 800 years.
The action begins in 1920. A spirited hockey match is a playful, ironical way of anticipating the bloody battle between two factions of the Irish, those supporting the 1921 treaty and those opposing it, towards which the film is headed. Post-match, all of a sudden Blacks and Tans materialize to terrorize the locals, murdering one boy for giving his name in Irish Gaelic rather than in English. (The Blacks and Tans, consisting of former British police officers, were the brutal force charged with “maintaining order” in Ireland by beefing up local forces.) In the main, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is about two brothers, Teddy and Damien O’Donovan, who are on the same side against the British but, later, post-treaty, on opposing sides. Once Damien is captured, Teddy, now an officer in the Irish Free State Army, pleads with his brother to betray the rebels; Damien refuses, and Teddy, steeling himself past overwhelming regret, has him executed. The film ends with Damien’s widow Sinéad furiously assaulting her brother-in-law, ordering him off her land (a thematically resonating command) and declaring her wish never to see him again for the rest of her days.
It is Damien, a medical doctor, who is the film’s protagonist. What seals his determination not to compromise is that he drew the lot that required his executing a boy who had given information to the enemy. The long shot of Damien walking away after the terrible event, the fixed camera toward his back, his shoulders seized by a quick shudder, bares the torn heart of a healer who has just killed. Teddy pleads that they will tear up the treaty with the British once they are strong enough; but Damien cannot give in. It would cast his killing act to the senseless winds; it would break faith with all the Irish dead.
Teddy also makes this plea: “You’re m—.” He cannot complete the sentence You’re my brother—in part because Laverty and Loach won’t let him. This is not a schematic film in which the conflict between O’Donovan brothers doubles for the larger political conflict. Laverty and Loach fold the fraternal conflict into the larger conflict, not vice versa. Nevertheless, a terrible irony abides throughout The Wind That Shakes the Barley: early on, Damien tries protecting his brother by saying that he, Damien, is Teddy. Indeed, it is Teddy who is partly responsible for drawing his younger brother into the armed fight against British injustice and occupation. What Damien sees going on all around him is also partly responsible.
Cillian Murphy gives a great performance as Damien. As Teddy begs Damien in his prison cell to join forces with him once again, thus sparing his own life, Damien’s head is down, his eyes closed, until he raises his head and opens his eyes to tell his brother just why he cannot accommodate the Anglo-Irish Treaty, although he, too, longs for the peace that the settlement promises. What good is peace without liberty, without freedom? Damien has told Teddy that he, Teddy, has wrapped himself in the Union Jack. Britain’s colonial bent may mean that the political form of peace for Ireland must continue to fall short of the Platonic form, the ideal. When Damien’s tied-up body is downed by an Irish squad’s barrage of bullets, one hopes he at last has found peace; but one knows better. Irish patriots bleed sorrow even in heaven.
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