Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006)

The return to a film that has always been a bit troublesome for me. I am a huge admirer of Ken Loach as a film maker and share many of his political views, but I find The Wind That Shakes The Barley a problematic watch.

I don't agree with imperialism or with undemocratic fascistic regimes and the brutality doled out by the Black and Tans was obviously an unspeakable savage abhorrence. With that in mind whilst I might have some sympathy for Irish republicanism, the mainland terror campaign of the IRA from the 1970s through to the 1990s - the era I grew up in - has coloured my view of what is clearly a very complicated issue. As such, any film or piece of work that depicts the thorny subject of Ireland from an all too simplistic or biased point of view is one I immediately have problems with - and yes I'm looking at you Paul McCartney and any American film made up until 2001 when the US realised for themselves what terrorism actually meant.

Loach's film may not be the most complex or nuanced of affairs, but it does not really deserve the 'IRA Propaganda' tag the vitriolic British press subsequently gave it ahead of its triumphant award winning screening at Cannes. Significantly, the film explores in its second half the betrayal of the revolution (a tradition in itself we can see time and time again) which stemmed from the birth of the Free State in 1922. In that regard The Wind That Shakes the Barley is not just about the cruel behaviour of the British to preserve their interests in a foreign land, but about how the Irish subsequently behaved - adding a few cruel tricks learnt by their former masters to go alongside their own brand of ruthlessness. Loach and his regular scriptwriter Paul Laverty makes no bones of the fact that their belief is that, when Michael Collins took to the negotiating table with Lloyd George and Churchill, they created a monster whose victim continued to be Ireland.

But I must admit I do not believe the divisions Loach and Laverty draws up in its wake, and when that's the main crux of the film it presents me with something of a problem in what is already a problematic subject. Loach and Laverty's heroes - as brought to life by Cillian Murphy and Liam Cunnigham - take their cue from James Connelly's socialist philosophy, principally that the fight for independence must go hand in hand with the fight for social equality and justice. This of course is something I can totally get behind, but in reality whilst there were some radical socialists in the ranks of the Republican Army, they were few and far between. This schism, that it was therefore a case of either/or, is thus blown out of proportion to fit Loach's usual political narrative - that the socialists and the idealogical hard left are betrayed by the negotiators and compromisers, thus barring the gates to the promised land of social equality for all. It's an easier way of depicting the situation than the more complex one required to tackle the myriad different understandings of republican nationalism that created the divide, and it's exactly the same narrative that featured far more successfully in Loach's 1995 Spanish Civil War epic Land & Freedom. It's not an outright lie, but it is a simplistic view and something of a distortion of the actual truth, something which The Wind That Shakes The Barley does quite often.

Like I said earlier, in depicting the incidents that occur on film, Loach and Laverty aren't actually making anything up but it is interesting to look at what is omitted. Whilst you can argue both sides are depicted can resort easily to savagery, the freedom fighters are painted much more sympathetically in accordance with the film being told from their point of view.  We never actually see the IRA killing policemen (in fact, the only scene which shows them storming a police station ends with them giving the constables there a warning - something which in reality they were scarcely ever given) or local Protestants (who featured large in their bodycount) and we only ever see one compelling instance of them killing an informer in their midst. The film depicts them as guerrillas who only kill as a last resort and always with good reason which has been explored in dialogue to the nth degree beforehand to ensure that the audience can be fully acquainted with their reasons, and their reluctance. In one ambush scene, a troop of Black and Tans are decimated in what is shown to be a fair and equal fight. The likely real-life ambush on which it's closely based however tells a different story; at Kilmichael in County Cork, the IRA finished off their British wounded and surrendered opponents with a clinical ruthless efficiency.

Again you can argue that this is simply a case of an eye for an eye, fair enough - but why not show it as such then? Instead, we see the harrowing aggression of the shouting, foul mouthed, uniformed Black and Tans (and later the Free State Army) being met by the softly spoken, plainclothed pure of heart rebels and the victimised innocents - always shown as women. All that said however, this is still a much more intelligent and absorbing film than the likes of Braveheart or The Patriot, so it would be unfair to lump it together with the weirdly anti-British, seemingly homophobic output of everyone's favourite anti-semite Mel Gibson even though, once suspects, the film will mean the same thing to a wider international audience as those films do.

Speaking at Cannes, Loach said "Our film, we hope, is about the British confronting their imperialist history and maybe if we tell the truth about the past, we will have the truth about the present" His meaning was clear; he wanted to draw parallels between the British colonial occupation of Ireland with Iraq following the Blair/Bush Oil Wars and the state Iraq has subsequently been left in. Perhaps you have to be simplistic with the past to prove a contemporary point? If you can put aside such qualms about historical accuracy and can put aside personal feelings to accept Loach's story it is a rather polished two hours (though it does occasionally sag) which boasts a strong central performance from Cilliam Murphy as a reluctant revolutionary who eventually becomes the fight's most dedicated and committed soul. And that reminds me, the excellent Peaky Blinders starring Murphy as Birmingham gang leader Tommy Shelby returns for a third series tonight at 9pm, BBC2.

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