REVIEW: The Wind That Shakes the Barley [2006]

“I try to get out and can’t”

Very few war movies will actually give you an insight into the men and the ideas that are being fought for. Usually we will be shown carnage and battle or at least, amidst the strive, a substory about soldiers rallying together in order to save someone. Some of my favorites include the classic Gettysburg. Here is a film about civil war and brother against brother, ideal vs ideal. We are given amazing fight scenes with rifles that have one shot apiece yet often times listen in to the generals reminiscing about their lives before the war and the future that awaits after victory. Finally a war film, a genre which I could do without due to the fact that few really need to be seen twice by me, has come along to give me reason to feel for the cause and the men fighting for it. Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a truly moving portrait of a nation desperately wanting to be free from the clutches of the tyrant English. This is a small film and as a result relies immensely on its characters to drive the pace along rather than heavily orchestrated battle scenes, however, when we get gunshots, the moments do not disappoint. What could be the smallest scale war epic I’ve seen—it could very well pack the biggest punch.

This film is definitely about the IRA’s fight for a free and autonomous Ireland, but at its heart it is about the Irish and how their lives and customs lead them forward into the battle. In order to get the audience engaged into the fight, we are given a pair of brothers to root for and care dearly about. Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) are caught in the middle of the fight and join up to help free themselves. Teddy is a leader of sorts who rallies those around him for a brutal attack on the enemy. Damien, on the other hand, is a doctor ready to leave the country and pursue his dream of helping the sick. Only after he sees firsthand the brutality of the armed occupants running wild inside his country does he realize that he is needed at home more. Damien becomes his brother’s second hand man and slowly watches his own soul disappear, turning into a shell of man with only victory and freedom on his mind. A man once living to help those in need, he soon finds that the cause calls for him to cross the line into territory he can never cross out of again until the victory is complete and final.

What really hit home while watching the movie was the brilliant acting by both Murphy and Delaney. The two are strong individuals who have the confidence to watch out for one another but also to question the validity of what they are doing. As the film evolves, we soon find that the two brothers slowly change, almost into how the other began the story. Our early look into this is when, after a court decision finds a man guilty, Teddy takes the man out of the bailiff’s hands and out into the street. He says that the man is needed to bankroll their weaponry and prolong the fight for freedom. His brother Damien is quick to call him out, though, saying how by not upholding the court they would be no better than the British. It is then ok to have ideals to fight for, but during the course of the war they don’t necessarily need to uphold them to battle for them. This scene is an integral turning point as we are finally shown the strength of mind Damien has built up, the fight his sibling started needed to be fought the right way and the reasons for his fight could not be compromised. On the flip side of the coin, though, Teddy shows that compromise is not something he is adversely opposed to. Small victories seem to be enough for him, but you can’t watch your kinsmen die around you for less than what you set out to accomplish.

The beauty here is in the dialogue heavy sequences between the IRA as they contemplate what to do next. Scenes like those in the jail cell once turned in by one of their own, or discussing whether a treaty with the British should be ratified, or the editorializing from their priest during Sunday mass tell more with words than any battle scene could. At its core, the fight for Irish freedom was one of politics and idealism, the war and death was only an accompaniment. The war of words showed more direct hits than the ambushes planned as a result to send their messages. I also must credit writer Paul Laverty and his fantastic cyclical story. The allusions at the end to moments from the start really weigh on a viewer’s conscience, slowly uncovering the true motives behind these men we have been rooting for throughout. When Delaney’s Teddy finds himself in the exact same position as his brother having to deal with a traitor at the start, it is truly heartbreaking to watch his face as he realizes what he must do. This is truly a war that turns from driving out a common enemy to civil unrest, as the man who fought by your side soon becomes a proxy for the entity you battled to rid yourself of. One can’t expect a soldier that is told victory is the only option to be happy with anything short of it. Sometimes you train those you love a little too well.

Whether it be the fully engrossing story told, the magnificent acting telling it, the ending that knocks the breath out of you yet perfectly encompasses the whole, or the fact that Irish culture just intrigues the hell out of me, (I even had to listen to The Corrs’ album Home as I drove away from the theatre), I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. The way these men fought, for a goal as important as freedom, while never losing their faith or conviction, is truly inspiring. Each man, no matter how brutal or unapologetic for the actions they must take, never forgets himself or the God he cherishes. Before any execution, the victim is allowed to write his goodbyes to those he loves and they are given to God as men. After each death, the sign of the cross is given in prayer for the fallen. The Irish are big Catholics and it is this attention to detail that gives the story its heart and emotional resonance. Loach never shows us robots fighting because they are told to—no, these are men fighting for what they believe in and if not for themselves, then their children who will one day live as all humanity should, completely free and accountable to no one.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★

[1] Pádraic Delaney as Teddy, Aidan O’Hare as Steady Boy and Cillian Murphy as Damien in THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY directed by Ken Loach. Photo credit: Joss Barratt. An IFC First Take release.
[2] Liam Cunningham as Dan in THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY directed by Ken Loach. Photo credit: Joss Barratt. An IFC First Take release.


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