The Wind that Shakes the Barley: The revolution within

Last Updated: Sun, Aug 11, 2019 17:16 hrs

Ken Loach's The Wind that Shakes the Barley follows the Irish struggle for independence from Britain from the perspective of two brothers whose principles turn them into adversaries

Ireland in 1920 - a guerrilla war rages on between Irish revolutionaries and the British army - these grim events provide the backdrop for the real conflict of the 2006 Ken Loach movie, The Wind that Shakes the Barley

The Wind that Shakes the Barley looks at the political struggle that went on in the midst of the struggle for independence. Between the conflict that rose and rises amidst comrades fighting for a common cause. The movie follows the events of the Irish struggle for Independence which brought about the signing of the treaty that created the Irish Free State and the ensuring Civil War.

Damien (Cillian Murphy) is set to leave his home in rural Ireland to pursue his medical studies in London. His brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) is the leader of a band of Irish freedom fighters who are fighting the ruthless squads of British soldiers sent in to crush Ireland's independence movement. Damien abandons his future as a doctor after witnessing the brutal killing of a childhood friend. Soon Damien is with the Irish Republican Army, much to the delight of his brother and friends in the community.

Soon the merry band of freedom fighters are caught and sent to prison. In an extremely intense moment, Teddy’s fingernails are pulled out gruesomely by his British captors. Soon after the lot escapes and Damien finds and kills the traitor, a young boy from within their outfit who fell for the jailors’ threats.

While this seems to cement the brothers’ common struggle against the British occupiers, it in fact provides fodder for the film’s true conflict. As the guerrilla war with the British rages on, the freedom fighters find themselves spilt as well. While many of the Irish freedom fighters are content with freedom others look at it as the first step before the dawn of a socialist government.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley is made of some complex political discussions set in the backdrop of resistance to an imperialist tyranny. In one such scene, the brothers argue about what land redistribution would mean for their uncles’ farms; one might conclude that either of the brothers’ view is valid.

In one scene one the characters states that if Ireland did not turn towards a socialistic government it would merely " change the accents of the powerful and the colour of the flag". A sentiment that is echoed in the 2002 film ‘The Legend of Bhagat Singh’ when Bhagat Singh predicts that a mere change of authority would mean that ‘gore sahab toh chale jayenge unki jagah bhure sahab aake baith jayenge. Ameer aur ameer ho jayega, gareeb aur gareeb.’ (white bureaucrats will be replaced by brown ones. The rich shall be wealthier and the poor penniless.)

This class antagonism of the film is a grim prelude to the murderous finale following initial euphoria following the truce between the IRA and Britain.

In yet another a dramatic scene between the brothers, Teddy sets a local loan shark free stating that the outfit needs his money to buy arms to fight the British. Damien objects to the move. Teddy refers to himself as a republican whilst Damien says he is a democrat. While this might be mistaken for the American political parties the two brothers are in fact discussing varying political philosophies.

While both Irish republicans and democrats fought for a hard-earned freedom from the British, the democrats were not content merely for change of government. Damien and his faction of the freedom fighters make the case for a socialistic government. The conflict is not unique to Ireland. In India’s own freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh shared uniquely differing views about what would come after. 

The anger of Ken Loach’s direction and screenwriter Paul Laverty’s view lights up the movie.

Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd shoots often in natural light in marked greens and browns. The movie has a slightly dark, saturated palette that reflects the pre-electricity Ireland beautifully. In a movie about brother against brother, the grey stone cottages stand majestically amid green hills.

Loach lets political arguments continue for a long time and while such scenes might slow down the pace they are neccessary to a film of ideas.

Cillian Murphy turns in a fine performance as the younger brother who learns to find his own pace in the freedom struggle. As his older brother, Padraic Delaney gets to show an extremely interesting character transition in the film's second half. Liam Cunningham is the stand out as a thoughtful train driver-turned-revolutionary; he is in some sense a stand in for the freedom struggles' conciousness reminding the others often of why they are fighting this battle in the first place.

The film’s title, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is taken from a famous Irish 19th century ballad written from the perspective of a doomed young rebel who is about to sacrifice his relationship with his loved one in order to join the fight against the British.

In that context, Damien's commitment to his revolution is not unlike a romance to which he vows himself in a scene not that plays out not unlike a wedding ceremony. Even here the film echoes a sentiment shared by many Indian revolutionaries who would say, 'meri dulhan toh azaadi hai' (freedom is my true bride). Ken Loach's film is as much poetry as it is politics. 

At one point in the movie Damien tells his girlfriend, Sinead, “It’s not what you are against, but what you are for that counts.” This perhaps captures the central conflict and the lasting moral of The Wind that Shakes the Barley. A beautiful often wrenching movie which depicts comradery and warfare in 1920s Ireland, in the midst of a struggle against imperialism.

This review is part of a series titled 'Cinematheque' centered around canvassing lesser-known films.

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