As a social commentator, Ken Loach’s doggedly political, usually pro-socialist films work best when they combine Loach’s understanding of how people live with actors or non-actors who are able to ground Loach’s statement in human, identifiably emotional terms. Since his depiction of the guerrilla warfare that erupted throughout Ireland in 1920 as workers fought back against the British army focuses on a pair of brothers (Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney) who take up arms as freedom fighters, and the actors embody their characters fully and believably, you’d think this would be the ideal circumstances for Loach to get his message across. The locations are appropriately green and grim, the houses and costumes appropriately drab and workmanlike, the dialogue naturalistic and spoken in thick Irish brogues (sans subtitles), and the depiction of combat, torture, and firing squads brutal and unflinching. Showing the rough-hewn lives of the rebels, struggling to stay alive in cramped safe houses and miles of woodlands, through the 1921 truce that created the Irish Free State and divided loyalties among the Irish people who had fought together, it’s a comprehensive history lesson with characters standing in as spokesmen for ideologies. And perhaps this is why The Wind That Shakes the Barley is ultimately so frustratingly dull. As a document of the shape of political thought, the film is successful; but as a living, beating heart about a populace living through a time of upheaval and confusion, it’s mediocre. Part of it has to do with Loach’s passive camera, which is content to observe but never willing to transform the situation into allegory or art. Great actors like Brian Cox and Frances McDormand in Hidden Agenda, Peter Mullan in My Name is Joe, and extremely talented non-actors in Ladybird, Ladybird and Sweet Sixteen were the extra ingredient that catapulted those films beyond a statement about the poor and the downtrodden. Here, in the lead roles, Murphy and Delaney give thorough, detailed, richly believable and nuanced performances, but because the situation is so much larger than they are, they inescapably become mouthpieces rather than human beings.
- IFC First Take
- 127 min
- Ken Loach
- Paul Laverty
- Cillian Murphy, Padraic Delaney, Liam Cunningham, Orla Fitzgerald, Mary Riordan, Mary Murphy, Laurence Barry, Damien Kearney, Frank Bourke
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