The Wind That Shakes the Barley

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The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Review (8/10)
(By Ron Henriques)

Last spring audiences at the Cannes film festival were met with a surprise when Ken Loach's political drama "The Wind that Shakes the Barley" was announced as the winner of the top prize, the Palm D'Or. It is often necessary for an underdog like Loach's film to be granted the proper accolades so that exposure will help it find an audience. Star Cillian Murphy established a modest fan base with hits like "28 Days Later" and "Red Eye", but the average moviegoer may not seek out a story about the formation of the IRA. The film begins in the early years leading up to the Irish Civil War of 1922 and opens up with a bloody bang. Damien (Murphy) and his young friends are playing an innocent game of football when aggressive British soldiers from the ruthless Black and Tan squads storm their way onto the countryside and end up unjustly murdering young Micheail (Laurence Barry). Damien, a doctor who was planning on boarding a train for London, is initially hesitant, but after witnessing soldiers harass the train's driver and conductor, ends up joining his friends in the Irish Republican Army. Leading the way for their small band of followers is Damien's older brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) and systematically they attempt to drive the British from their country.

Following several ambushes and attacks on British soldiers, Damien and his group are ratted out by one of their own and thrown in jail. They barely escape with their lives, but not before Teddy suffers a horrendous interrogation that consists of his fingernails being pulled out. Joining their cause are Dan (Liam Cunningham), the driver of that train Damien almost boarded and Micheail's sister Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald), who has shared a mutual attraction with him. Though they've known each other since they were children, Damien and Sinead have never acted on their feelings, but he is impressed by her dedication and ability to hold her own with the boys.

The film aggressively moves through a number of impressive set pieces and the tension increasingly builds until it is almost unbearable. The story's momentum comes to an abrupt halt with the signing of a treaty between Britain and Ireland and that is where things start to change. While some are in favor of the compromises made for peace with the British, others see it as no change at all, including Damien. They want total independence from British rule and will continue to bear arms to do it. The problem is that many of the friends they fought and bled alongside are now members of the army and have basically sided with the British. Teddy holds a high rank and will even fight against his own brother to maintain the so-called peace they've established.

Under Loach's direction, the circumstances of the story seem so fresh and relevant to today that one occasionally forgets these real events took place eighty-five years ago. Though the story languishes a bit in the second half, the sense of urgency to the plight of Damien and his friends is mesmerizing. With his whisper thin stature, Murphy convincing portrays a quiet man who resorts to violence in order to reserve the rights and freedom of his countrymen. He even goes as far as executing the friend who was forced to rat them out and though he carries the act with guilt on his conscience he continues to persevere. The story loses focus when it shifts to the tension following the signing of the treaty, nevertheless, the strong performances make it work and the power of the first half makes up for the whole.

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