Sharing the name of Robert Dwyer Joyce’s ballad and taking inspiration from Walter Macken’s novel, The Scorching Wind, Ken Loach’s film, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, is a typically charged and politically steadfast outing telling the fictional account of the O’Donovan brothers, torn apart in an early Irish Revolutionary epoch.
Irish history and its relations to the British are – putting it lightly – complex and longstanding. Still on thin ice to this day and frequently tested, albeit in a more acceptable manner with formal attire and policy. With the links now centuries old and boasting unfathomable depths of tension, a single filmic affair would be incapable of charting the whole story and yet Ken Loach’s film serves as both one of the most compelling and stunningly crafted dramas I’ve seen of this period, whilst remaining true to form by proving itself as an ever necessary spotlight on a struggle often cast aside by the mainstream.
From my first viewing as a 16 year-old to the infrequent rewatches, its initial gut-punch and kick in the teeth hasn’t waned in the slightest. Though I’ve yet to see the revered Kes (which, I can confirm is a social crime here in Yorkshire, one punished by a verbal lashing from Sean Bean no less) or even scratch the surface of Loach’s filmography beyond what’s effectively his greatest hits, The Wind that Shakes the Barely owns a spot in my personal all-time favourites and itself truly feels near, if not atop, the apex of his works. Even focusing solely on the film and surgically removing it from its contexts and politics (as much as one can at least), I struggle to find another example that has used two hours as effectively, harrowingly and unflinching in its depictions of the socio-political landscape. Drawing exceptional performances and held up by the spine of an exceptional narrative, there’s more than good reason for my personal acclaim and that which it received practically unanimously from audiences and the box office, critics and the festival circuit (at the time) alike.
Writer Paul Laverty (a frequent collaborator of Loach’s) has a career-best here. If we contextualise, for the sake of understanding here, by closing the book on the longstanding geopolitical conflict after the Good Friday agreement, the film falls in the midpoint (roughly) of the difficult relations with the events unfolding in the 1920s. On his final few days as a permanent resident of the Emerald Isle, Dr. Damien O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy) finds himself radicalised into political, boots on the ground activism after witnessing, by proxy, the brutality of the settled Black and Tan British soldiers.
In the fallout, our protagonist follows the precedent set by his brother and joins the IRA, where campaigns of party politics and direct action take their focus until the rebels, or at least factions of them, are appeased by a treaty of the most minimal compromise. Ken Loach isn’t an apolitical director, that much one can fathom from just a quick glance of his filmography, but I’ve never found him to be alienating of any sorts unless, of course, you’re of the opposite spectrum of beliefs. There is a fine line to walk in terms of presenting events that have some element of reality to them and in fairness to him, Loach hits the sweet spot here. The viewfinder being a single character eases a lot of the expositional delivery and by Cillian Murphy being the audience surrogate, the premise of clashing ideologies becomes palatable.
In a broader sense, the structure of the narrative is impeccable. Laverty’s infusion of action breathes a little life and kinetic cinematography to compliment the grand, theatre-like monologues and downtime populated by character focus. With enough time dedicated to actually building the tension between these outbursts of action and fleshing out the cast, it makes the brother dynamic all the more wrenching.
On that note, it allows a swift dovetail into the real draw of the film, its performances. Whilst the supporting cast are plentiful in terms of population, this is a three-man show. You’d be foolish to think otherwise. Liam Cunningham, is perhaps the exemplar definition of a character actor. You’ll be guaranteed to have seen him in something but perhaps a distance from the fore which makes his turn here an enjoyable anomaly. His character, the spirited, unionised train driver, Dan, makes for O’Donovan’s closest ally and aide. A more weighty appearance compared to Hunger, Cunningham is more than capable of fulfilling his duties here as the respite character, his arc offering an effective subplot so the film doesn’t become wholly bogged down by a brotherly conflict.
In terms of the main attraction here, it’s the double pivot of Cillian Murphy and Pádraic Delaney. Though it was the first time in which the duo had crossed paths, later sharing the screen in the exceptionally underrated Perrier’s Bounty, the chemistry between the two is impeccable. With Delaney the careerist and Murphy donning the role of martyr, the contrasting duality is fiercely powerful and mark a career highlight for the pair of them. With every performance of a naturalistic manner with slight stutters and pauses inbuilt, it adds this almost burning passion which one can’t quite but feel spirited by. Two total powerhouse outings. On that note though, it is a Murphy title and that honour can’t be stripped from him, from monologues on policy to practically every emotion on the spectrum, it’s packed with range and demands so much from the individual which the Irish star more than rises to.
A sensitive, yet powerful fictional account set amidst a tumultuous period of history, Loach’s film is a true spectacle, to say the least. Anchored by a small collection of exceptional performances which add serious power to the tragic tale of brothers divided, the two-hour epic is an absolute must-watch and is equally a jewel in the crown of British and Irish domestic film.