Two Irish brothers are torn apart by the anti-Brit rebellion of the ’20s in “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” a studiously sincere film by veteran helmer Ken Loach and scripter Paul Laverty in which the human drama increasingly gets lost in the political. Though tastily lensed by ace d.p. Barry Ackroyd and with a convincing cast led by Cillian Murphy, essentially small-scale pic lacks the involving sweep of Loach’s earlier historical-political yarn, “Land and Freedom,” and looks likely to reap only modest returns in general arenas.
Young doctor Damien O’Donovan (Murphy) is about to leave Ireland to work at a London hospital. During a game of hurling (a sport akin to hockey) with his pals, he gets some mild ribbing about working for the Brits.
Things suddenly turn darker when Damien visits a farm owned by the venerable Peggy (Mary Riordan) to say his goodbyes. A bunch of Black & Tans (British “peacekeeping” troops) turn up and announce that all public meetings, including games, are banned. During hostile questioning, Peggy’s grandson, Micheail (Laurence Barry), who doesn’t speak English, is taken into the barn and beaten to death.
From the one-dimensional way in which the thuggish Black and Tans are portrayed, it’s pretty clear Loach and Laverty also have in mind a much more contemporary example of a foreign power sending in troops to a less-developed country and brutalizing its recalcitrant inhabitants. As Damien is finally convinced to stay and fight, pic looks like it will develop into a smart parallel between waning British imperialism of the last century and U.S. foreign policy of the present.
To the delight of his friends, and especially his activist brother, Teddy (Padraic Delaney), Damien signs up with the Irish Republican Army. Operating in small guerrilla groups, they steal weapons from a police barracks and — in a brief but effectively brutal sequence in a bar — gun down some British officers.
With its sudden, almost casual violence, which doesn’t linger over the bloody details, there’s an impressive intensity to these opening reels. With occasional assist from George Fenton’s score, the picture moves forward even while the viewer is still trying to work out the exact relationships between the main characters.
As the Brits round up prisoners in reprisal, Teddy’s guerrilla group is caught and Teddy himself horrifically tortured. Saved at the last moment from execution, Damien, Teddy & Co. head for the hills. But their early idealism is soon complicated by political events between London and Dublin.
Following the Anglo-Irish Peace Agreement, which formed the Irish Free State as a dominion within the British Empire, the brothers find themselves pitted against each other, with Teddy supporting the Free Staters (as a practical solution to the independence struggle) but Damien still pursuing the IRA’s dream of a totally independent Ireland.
During this second hour, the movie moves away from contempo parallels and starts to take on water. Long dialogue meticulously discusses the issues as scripter Laverty tries to play fair to all sides while remaining true to the complex train of political events.
“Land and Freedom” also suffered from similar jaw-jawing but leavened its lecturing with highly cinematic action sequences. “Barley” is painted on a much smaller canvas, with tiny guerrilla actions and a small central cast. But the characters get lost in the plot-heavy second half. The ending should be far more emotionally powerful than it is.
As the initially apolitical doctor who becomes an uncompromising patriot, the gleaming-eyed Murphy holds the screen and is well supported by Delaney as the initially idealistic but increasingly pragmatic Teddy. Gaining in stature as pic progresses, Liam Cunningham adds mature heft as train driver turned activist Dan, who gets many of the script’s best speeches. Rest of the cast, including Orla Fitzgerald as Damien’s token love interest, don’t get much chance to register.
Ackroyd’s textured photography, stressing natural light and awash with greens and browns, convincingly conjures up a period prior to electric light. Production design and costuming look equally natural. Pic’s title comes from a traditional ditty heard near the start, about “foreign chains that bind us.”