There's a great scene in "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," Ken Loach's new drama about the Irish War of Independence , set in County Cork. It's 1920 and the British are still occupying Ireland, but practical matters , like small claims, still need tending . During one session, a local businessman complains to a makeshift court that a little old lady owes him money, including an obscenely high interest charge. The judge (a stern young woman) rules in the old lady's favor. But the young IRA volunteers, led by a fellow named Teddy (Pádraic Delaney ), intervene.
It seems the businessman has been paying to keep the men armed, which would be hard for him to do from jail. When the magistrate hears of this, she summons Teddy back to her courtroom, and a philosophical debate ensues. What good is the law if it can't look out for the citizenry? How can the citizenry believe the law offers more important protection than guns? The IRA thinks the court is too principled for these bellicose times. The court thinks the army is rash to the point of being destructive.
Usually in Loach's movies -- including "Riff-Raff" (1990), "Land and Freedom" (1995), and "Carla's Song" (1996 ) -- this is the moment where the human action stops and the social-philosophy lesson begins. But in "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," this scene is the action. Loach and Paul Laverty , the deft politics-minded scribe who's written many of Loach's films, are showing us Ireland as it splits in half, foreshadowing the civil war to come.
Later on, Loach and Laverty give us another scene of inflamed discourse that's just as good. The film itself concerns a derailed freedom fight in which brother literally fights brother for the same cause: to rid Ireland of England.
Damien (Cillian Murphy ) is a young physician who has decided, rather than leave for London, to join the IRA. He fights in a tiny ragtag volunteer corps alongside his brother Teddy (early on, there are more hurling sticks than rifles). Together, they survive imprisonment, torture, and the threat of a firing squad. But after the Irish politician Michael Collins forges a treaty with Britain (cleverly represented here via newsreel at the local movie house) granting the country only partial economic independence, a wedge is driven between the two men.
Damien won't settle for anything less than complete independence. Teddy thinks the treaty is a necessary starting point, and he's willing to point a gun at anyone who believes otherwise. As a more seasoned volunteer named Dan (Liam Cunningham , who brings the movie a lot of wisdom) points out, "All we're changing if we ratify this treaty are the accents of the powerful and color of the flag." The movie focuses on the tragic human outcome of that disagreement.
Initially, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" seems out simply to vilify the British occupiers. The Black and Tans are a hostile, murderous bunch. Eventually, though, they become a noxious background noise, and Ireland begins to fight with itself.
Loach's characteristic realism fades in and out . Often his best movies floor you with their illusion of fly-on-the-wall transparency. But "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" uses Damien and Teddy to limn a schematic, almost dialectical structure that crowds out the emotional immediacy in order to draw a dramatic conclusion that seems inevitable. In other words, the film starts to feel forced.
The approach worked for "Barley" at last year's Cannes Film Festival, where it won the top prize. But the historical scope of this story, as well as Loach's interest in absolute fairness, seems to have drained some of the life from its telling. This balanced take on the Irish divide replaces both the social outrage of his films about the politically oppressed and working-class as well as the rich character contours that can make his filmmaking so pointed.
What does come through is Loach's characteristic disdain for cheap romanticism and easy answers. "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" could have been an easy tribute to freedom fighters. But Loach and Laverty know history tends to make that kind of hope seem far-fetched, particularly since the violent factionalism they've dramatized still exists throughout the world.