In “The Wind That Shakes The Barley” Ken Loach presents two lessons, one a teaching of history through the eyes of his turn-of-the-last-century Irish revolutionaries fighting the British Black and Tans, another a class in master filmmaking at its finest. (Perhaps the only other filmmaker to come close in recent years is Deepa Mehta and her trilogy of political upheaval and its consequences in India, “Fire,” “Earth” and “Water.” In fact “Earth,” Mehta’s study of India’s social collapse after independence, would make a great double bill with Loach’s Palme d’Or winner. Earth, Wind and Fire. Take that Ken Burns!)
The opposite of PBS mediocrity, Ken Loach’s brilliance lies in his ability to take large ideological issues and embody them in everyman characters. Making the political personal is usually the province of playwrights working on a smaller canvas (“On The Waterfront” notwithstanding, Arthur Miller onstage is nearly always better than Arthur Miller onscreen). But Loach creates living symbols that avoid caricature. His two brothers Damien, played sharply by Cillian Murphy, and Teddy, a wonderfully understated Padraic Delaney, are both as starkly black-and-white and red-blooded as can be. The first half of “The Wind That Shakes The Barley” shows these young idealists fighting the British baddies, ethnic slurs like “paddy” hurled at them by anonymous thugs. The stark violence is disturbing but nothing we haven’t seen before from Scorsese and his ilk. What sends a shiver up the spine is the second half of Loach’s masterpiece, after the treaty with England is signed. For a brief moment you experience the joy, the climax of hope experienced by Damien and Teddy, until you realize you’re only at the halfway point of the film.
As history has shown, things could only get worse. What the Irish Republicans took for freedom finally within their sights was really an undetected poison administered by Britain’s Machiavellian Neville Chamberlain, a death sentence masquerading as truce. Like it would be in India, the natives too easily turn on one another, playing into the empire’s dirty hands. The anonymous mercenaries morph into brothers with names like Rory and Dan. The war becomes heartrendingly personal. Loach literalizes this brother against brother theme with Damien’s all-or-nothing side splitting with Teddy’s compromise-for-the-good-of-Ireland faction. As the two argue about whose means will bring about an English-free homeland, the “inevitable” victory, the film becomes painful to watch, more brutal than any bloody battle that came before. (In one poignant scene Teddy accuses Damien of being a dreamer. Damien shoots back, claiming he’s the realist. Who’s the dreamer and who’s the realist? Why, in fact both characters are.) In essence, we find ourselves listening to the eloquently moot points of two slaves condemned to die. What does it matter whose escape plan is better when neither will work? The two brothers are simply quarreling over a preferred method of execution. And Loach in all his genius literalizes this as well – one brother experiencing physical death, the other the death of the soul. Who is really dead? Who is really better off? Loach seems to ask. A question only the wind could answer.