Damien O’Donovan is mild-mannered young doctor from County Cork, Ireland. Living in 1920’s Ireland is no picnic as the opening of the film demonstrates. Damien and friends are out playing a variation of stickball when a squad of Black and Tans arrives. They begin to beat and humiliate the assembled folks by forcing the men to strip and screaming and pushing the women. When one man is prompted to give his name, he answers with his name in Gaelic. For daring to refuse to answer in English, the squad takes him inside a barn, ties him to a post and beats him dead while his mother and sister stand outside.
Damien’s brother Teddy has a real fire in his belly as far as Irish independence goes. He begs Damien to stay, but the apprehensive Damien thinks only of his new job in London. The death of his friend is not enough to motivate him to stay in Ireland and join the fight. It is not until Damien witnesses a beating of an elderly train conductor and driver at a train station for refusing to let armed British troops board a train that something inside him snaps. Damien joins the Irish Republican Army.
The Wind That Shakes The Barley is a fascinating film primarily not because it examines a very violent, sad period in Irish history but because it instead focuses on a family in that period and their choices. Damien is the all-talk, no-walk kind of guy until something spurs him into action. Teddy is so devout, so fierce in his devotion to the Republican cause that he withstands his fingernails being ripped out by British soldiers during a torture session.
As the film progresses, the brothers begin to change. A turning point in Damien’s life is when he’s ordered to kill a man who was coerced into informing on the IRA. The man in question is a childhood friend of Damien’s. Damien follows orders, but never forgets what he had to do as time marches on, especially since he honors his childhood friend’s wishes and informs the friend’s mother of her son’s death.
The two brothers continue to fight for Irish independence but are forced apart by political views when the Anglo-Irish Treaty is signed. Damien, clinging to what he has sacrificed in life for a free Ireland, abhors the Treaty while Teddy embraces it. The two brothers quarrel and go their separate ways.
What follows is a somber telling of what people will sacrifice for beliefs and ideas; neither brother ever can budge on what he views is right for his country, their beliefs superseding their own familial relationship. The backdrop of suffering and indignities foisted upon their friends and family only highlights the tension the two brothers face. Teddy joins the Irish Army and Damien fights against the Irish Army as Damien sticks with the IRA, effectively joining ranks against his brother. It is a situation that cannot and does not end well.
The Wind That Shakes The Barley is a well-done film, but it’s not without its bobbles. There is no ambiguity in how Ken Loach, the director, felt about the British. British bad, Irish good. Damien is a socialist, something I haven’t seen approached in many of these Irish history flicks, but the film leans toward Damien’s beliefs. The pro-Treaty folks are not necessarily portrayed in the best of lights. The reason I mention this is that if your own interpretation of the Irish Civil War is different, Loach’s treatment is probably not going to sit well. Damien’s girlfriend, Sinead, is played by Orla Fitzgerald who does a fine job – but the character of Sinead is so flat in some respects, it’s to Fitzgerald’s credit that she makes something out of it. Sinead is mostly there for occasional moral support and to have something terrible happen to her. An awkward love scene between Damien and Sinead is shoe-horned in, something that could have easily been cut.
The previously unknown to me Liam Cunningham does well as Dan, the aforementioned train driver and a man who becomes good friends with Damien in a small role. Like Fitzgerald, he doesn’t have a ton to work with but he makes the best of it. Padraic Delaney is good as Teddy O’Donovan but the real meat of the movie is hands down Cillian Murphy. Murphy is subtle, convincing and powerful; he’s so good everyone else slightly dims around him. (Shallow note: He’s also damn pretty in this one. DAMN, CILLIAN.)
It is a fantastic, beautiful movie that is worth the time you invest in it – and you probably will invest in it. I don’t know how Irish folks feel about the movie, but it did make me cry, especially at the end. Then again, I have a weakness for historical flicks like these. I always end up crying at them. It is saddening and interesting, beautifully done while exploring ideas that affected an entire country on a very small scale.
What amazes me is that this (rightfully, I think) won the Palme d’Or at Cannes but somehow got passed over at the Oscars. Cillian Murphy deserves more acclaim than he got for this one; I suppose I’m going to hope that he books more jobs as a result.
Verdict: Highly recommended, but bring the hankies.