Ken Loach's latest, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, won top honors at this year's Cannes film festival, and it's easy to see why. Loach's nineteenth feature may be his most accessible to date, but it's also uncompromising in its dramatic explication of the guerilla war surrounding the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921.
Cillian Murphy stars as Damien, a young Irish doctor who fights alongside his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) against the pitiless, English Black and Tan squads. Paul Laverty's sturdy screenplay—bolstered by Loach's allowance for improvisational looseness in interpreting each scene—gracefully condenses the complicated history of the Irish Troubles in ways both literal and allegorical. In most respects, Loach lends the material an earthy immediacy, but the story regularly breathes for metaphysical reflection.
Aside from the poetry of the title (taken from a ballad evoking the land as graveyard) and an impromptu jail-cell recitation of Blake's "The Garden of Love" (there too are "tomb-stones where flowers should be"), Loach's characters search achingly for just-so verbal salvation—if not for this world, then for the next. At execution time, the Catholic soldiers instruct the doomed, "Write your letters." Another Loach hallmark is spirited, spontaneous political debate, and all corners are heard from here, from the overt politician to the parish priest.
In fighting a war of independence, the insurgents struggle not to become, in the process, what they hate. For his part, Damien is tortured by the irony of his life path. "I studied anatomy for five years, then," he says, "and now I'm going to shoot this man in the head...I hope this island we're fighting for is worth it." When a truce temporarily arrests the skirmishes, arrests, and torture, the blessing of the cease-fire is short-lived. Ireland becomes a divided, conquered nation as the pro-Treatyites square off against the anti-Treatyites, who will brook no compromise.
With a brother entrenched on either side of the political divide, Barley both honors and transcends its ideological concerns by locating the tragic, personal, spiritual toll of the Troubles. Though the fraternal metaphor is simple and conventional, it also qualifies as fictive historical realism. Loach brings history to life with detailed production design, fine landscape photography, and elegantly unobtrusive direction, but it's the soul-rattling convictions so effectively embodied by Murphy and Delaney that will hit patriots where they live—and die.
The DVD debut of The Wind That Shakes the Barley does justice to Barry Ackroyd's lovely, overcast cinematography. Excellent picture and sound are primary, but the bonus features are equally impressive: a feature commentary by Loach and historical adviser Prof. Donal O'Driscoll and a terrific 50-minute documentary about Loach and his work. The screen-specific commentary offers some observations about the production and Loach's cast, but naturally focuses on historical contexts, with Loach and O'Driscoll a garrulous and well-informed team.
The new documentary "Carry On Ken" (49:07) illuminates the life and career of director Ken Loach with behind-the-scenes footage from the Barley locations, a biographical sketch, career retrospective, an overview of Loach's filmmaking approach (what actor-director Peter Mullan calls "the invisible camera"), and footage from Loach's 2007 Palme D'Or win at the Cannes Film Festival. But the best feature of the documentary is the impressive roster of contributors, most of whom come from the casts of Loach's films: Brian Cox, Cillian Murphy, Robert Carlyle, Mullan, Ian Hart, Ricky Tomlinson, Martin Compston, and fifteen others. Loach himself provides extensive reflections on his career.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is easily among the best films of the year to date. It bears (re)examination on home video, especially with the wealth of educational commentary on Irish history and Loach's decades of cinematic contributions.
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