In a vulnerable country occupied by a foreign power, civilian frustration leads to anger, which soon explodes into a violent, uncontainable insurgent movement. It could be ripped from today's headlines but The Wind That Shakes the Barley is set in 1920s Ireland, where the oppressors are the British and the rebels are members of the nascent Irish Republican Army.
Directed by Ken Loach (Bread and Roses) in his trademark naturalistic style (few close-ups, overlapping dialogue) and with immaculate attention to period detail, Wind makes the guerrillas sympathetic to a point. But it's also a film that avoids drawing strict boundaries; it exactly captures the uncertainty that arises when conflict and emotion become hopelessly tangled. At the beginning, brothers Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) and Damien (Cillian Murphy, the only cast member with a Hollywood hand stamp) know precisely where they stand. Tensions between British soldiers and Irish villagers are already sky-high when the young men are accosted by the Black and Tans for daring to hold a forbidden public meeting (really a harmless sporting match). Amid the shouting and gun pointing, an Irish teen refuses to speak his name in English, with fatal consequences.
With that first act of brutality, Wind 's tone is set. It's war, and a dirty one at that. Damien abandons his med-school plans to join the fiery Teddy in his quest to drive out the Brits. As hostility escalates humiliation, torture, and cold-blooded execution are the daily norm Damien becomes more warrior than intellectual, a changeover that crystallizes once he's asked to perform a terrible deed in the name of the cause. "I hope this Ireland we're fighting for is worth it," he mutters.
But is it, at least for Damien? The affairs of state play out as you'd expect; for our benefit, events are explained via a newsreel the townsfolk watch in the local movie theater. The headline "Peace Treaty Signed by British and Irish Leaders!" is greeted first with cheers, then chagrin when it's revealed the country will still be a dominion of the British empire and Northern Ireland will still be part of the United Kingdom. Clearly, there's no way the bloody mess in the countryside will be tidily ended by a piece of paper signed by far-off dignitaries.
For Teddy and Damien, the ruling forces an impenetrable wedge between them. Teddy accepts the compromise, figuring he'll work within the system to change it for him, "this Ireland" is worth it. Damien's actions during the war have pushed him to the point of no return; he has no choice but to keep fighting. When the brothers have their climactic clash, even their deep love for each other can't overcome their political beliefs.
Wind was the Palme d'Or winner at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, a surprise victory for a movie that seems, at least on paper, to be about a pretty specific moment in Irish history. The tale of two brothers is admittedly an obvious storytelling device check your Civil War cinema for other me-versus-him tales, or foreign epics such as the 2004 Korean drama Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War. Wind 's leg up is its echoing of current events; you can't help but watch the film through the framing of the nightly news. It could be in rural Ireland, it could be in rural Iraq, but fighting for freedom can take many forms, with all involved believing victory for their side will produce the only acceptable result. But what happens when the clear-cut realms of a battlefield mutate into the murky waters of courts, laws, and governments? To paraphrase Damien, it's easy to know what you're against but another thing entirely to figure out what you're for.
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