Nothing cranks up the juice of a revolutionary war film quite like a bit of good old-fashioned cruelty. The Wind That Shakes the Barley is set in County Cork in the early ’20s, when the Irish struggle against British rule had reached a critical flash point, and the movie doesn’t stint on episodes of indignityinducing, squirm-in-your-seat sadism. We meet the British police, known (perversely) as the Royal Irish Constabulary, when one of its feared Black and Tan squads forces a group of Irish lads to strip and spit out their names. A single unnecessary syllable, especially if it’s spoken in Gaelic, is quite enough to set off the soldiers’ hair-trigger tempers, and this establishes the film’s tone: The English here aren’t just repressive occupiers — they are bullies, which is far less forgivable.
It’s the humiliation of British rule, the grotesque personal dimension of it, that inspires Damien (Cillian Murphy), a soft, pensive, rather winsome soul who plans to go to London to study medicine, to leave his ambition behind and join his defiant brother, Teddy (Pádraic Delaney), and other local rebels in what will evolve into the Irish Republican Army. Tossed into jail, Teddy refuses to crack under questioning, and as a result he gets his fingernails torn out, one by one. You watch the scene in horror and awe, agonized by the pain, galvanized by Teddy’s ability to withstand it.
The director, Ken Loach, is known for movies like Raining Stones — thick-brogued, quotidian English dramas of working-class life and oppression (for Loach, the two often seem to be one and the same). In The Wind That Shakes the Barley, he fills the screen with gnashing outrage at the British lording it over the Irish. No doubt: Loach gives good righteous nobility. (That may be why his movie took the Palme d’Or at Cannes.) He paints the film in dark, rain-on-the-emerald-moor colors, and he provides fascinating details of how the Irish guerrilla struggle developed, with the rebels filching weapons, lashing out against tiny pockets of soldiers, steeling themselves to commit a shotgun execution — of a British landlord, or of anyone in their own ranks who betrays the cause.
The ferocity of Loach’s moral wrath carries the movie, makes it ignite on screen — at least, until he tries to dramatize the fatal split of Ireland through Damien and Teddy, the brothers in arms. In December 1921, when the Anglo-Irish Treaty is signed, giving Ireland dominion status within the British Commonwealth, it’s Damien, the placid purist, who says that the revolutionary struggle must continue, while Teddy, so militant in the face of torture, turns around and pleads for a laying down of arms. If Loach had given full voice to each side of this division, he could have made a great film — maybe the great film — about the Irish struggle. But in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Loach can barely summon half a heart for Teddy’s position. A movie that presents itself, ultimately, as a tragic portrait of a divided nation fails to explore the deepest reason for that fissure: the Irish who longed to stop fighting because they no longer saw the honor in it.