Early on in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, I found myself wanting to shout "Ireland for the Irish!" at the screen. The movie opens with a group of men enjoying a hurling match on one of those emerald-green fields, and instead of uniforms they're wearing what appears to be their Sunday best - white long-sleeved shirts, dark pants and vests. It's 1920, four years after the Easter Uprising, and England, still shell-shocked from the trench warfare of World War I, has borne down on its colony to the west. The so-called Blacks and Tans, a paramilitary force, has been terrorizing the population. And when some English soldiers show up to remind the hurlers that there's no right to assembly in Ireland, it's like an SS Aktion without the German shepherds. Men are lined up against the wall, and when one of them refuses to give his name in English, he's taken inside for what let's call "further questioning."
Directed by Ken Loach and written by Paul Laverty, The Wind That Shakes the Barley wants to show us where the Irish Republican Army came from and, figuratively speaking, where it's coming from. It also wants to do it from the bottom-up, not the top-down. For the top-down version, see Michael Collins, which starred Liam Neeson as the man who more or less invented the art of guerrilla warfare. Collins barely gets a mention in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which is set in County Cork, far from Dublin. Here, there's a kind of disconnect between the violence and the gorgeous scenery part of what Yeats may have meant by Ireland's "terrible beauty." And the guerrilla tactics seem even more improvised than in Michael Collins, everything being done for the first time. After one roadside ambush, the lads are left in a daze. They can't believe all the damage they've just caused.
Loach and Laverty, who took a similar approach in Land and Freedom, their movie about the Spanish Civil War, make no bones about where their loyalties lie. Irish, good; English, bad. Terrorists aren't born, they're made. And The Wind That Shakes the Barley shows us one in the making Damien, a med student who, after he witnesses what the occupying army is capable of, decides that instead of saving lives he must take some. Played by Cillian Murphy, who brought such a deliciously creepy vibe to the villains in Batman Begins and Red Eye, Damien is an intellectual type who has to actively cultivate a taste for blood. When the orders come down to execute a local kid who's betrayed the group's whereabouts, Damien is left holding the gun, and it's a sickening affair, both for him and for us.
It's also hardening, leaving some scar tissue where a piece of his soul once was. We don't get to know Damien very well, nor do we get to know his brother, Teddy, played by Pádraic Delaney. But we're supposed to see them as Cain and Abel figures in a story of biblical proportions. That's a hoary concept (as old as the Bible), but Loach and Laverty complicate things in such a way that the movie takes on a truly tragic dimension. Early on, Damien and Teddy are on the same side. In fact, it's Teddy who sears the Republican cause into Damien's heart. After an English officer, while interrogating him, removes his fingernails with a rusty pair of pliers, Damien joins the IRA. Then, midway through the movie, it's suddenly announced that a truce has been agreed upon. And a treaty is then signed. Ireland - two-thirds of it, anyway - will now govern itself, albeit as part of the United Kingdom.
That may have been the most critical moment in the entire history of Anglo-Irish relations, the very beginning of "The Troubles." And Loach and Laverty treat it as a banishment from Eden. Things had been bad for centuries, but rarely had brother fought against brother. Now, not only was the country divided between the Catholic South and the largely Protestant North, it was divided between those who supported the treaty and those who opposed it, the Free Staters and the Republicans. And wouldn't you know it, Damien and Teddy wind up on opposite sides. Teddy has learned the art of compromise, although he must have done it off-screen, because we don't see it dramatized. And Damien, who's given so much to the struggle, can't give it all up for only a portion of what he was fighting for. Each is a perfectly reasonable position. Together, they lead straight to hell.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley tries to weave its various strands into a story worthy of Sophocles or Shakespeare, but that's not where its strengths lie. Its strengths lie more in group dynamics, the process by which a bunch of farmers and laborers organize themselves into a Flying Column that's ready to pounce on the enemy when it least expects it. The movie's violence is handled so matter-of-factly as to seem not quite real. Also contributing to that is an overall lack of blood. Bullets pierce skin without seeming to leave a hole, which is strange for a movie that's otherwise so realistic. But words, those hit the mark. There's a lot of arguing, a lot of debating, and I'll be honest with you, I wasn't always able to decipher those thick Irish brogues. But wars are not fought with guns alone, and Laverty has given even the most inarticulate among these men an understated eloquence.
They have a lot to talk about, and the movie sometimes devolves into a history lesson, although it's hard to imagine a more exciting history lesson. Socialism, a subject dear to Loach's heart, gets discussed at length. Damien feels that if the country continues along capitalist lines, the names, even the accents, may change, but the exploitation of the masses will remain the same. And you start to see how revolutions wind up feeding on themselves. Some are willing to take whatever they can get, others want it all. Today, with Euros pouring in, Ireland isn't quite the war zone it's been in the past. But for some, the Anglo-Irish War and the Irish Civil War continue to this day, and will continue until those emerald-green fields belong to the Irish and only the Irish. What Loach and Laverty have done is show us how much damage can be done to those fields by the ill wind that shakes the barley.