Eugene Weekly : Movie Review : 6.7.07


Winds of Change
Hardly a moment to mourn

THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY: Directed by Ken Loach. Screenplay by Paul Laverty. Cinematography, Barry Ackroyd. Music, George Fenton. Starring Cillian Murphy, Pádraic Delaney, Liam Cunningham and Orla Fitzgerald. IFC First Take, 2007. Not rated. 124 minutes.

Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) in The Wind That Shakes the Barley

The Wind that Shakes the Barley, the latest film from acclaimed and highly political director Ken Loach, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year. A well-crafted film that’s anchored by a nicely understated performance from the Cillian Murphy (you’ve seen his unearthly cheekbones in Batman Begins and 28 Days Later), Barley is visually rich within its dark, damp palette of greens, browns and grays. It’s a look at a period that may have more than a few viewers reaching for their history books (or at least clicking over to Wikipedia): the Irish War of Independence.

Yet Barley is, despite all this, a peculiarly distant film that wears purpose on its sleeve in a slightly offputting manner, directing the viewer’s attention toward the filmmaker’s intent and away from the film’s slight characters and its occasionally jumpy storytelling. Like Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima, it gives little sense of the broader scope of the conflict, focusing solely on a small group of men who are shocked into joining the fight against British rule after a brutal murder. In one sense, this works well, emphasizing the film’s verité aspects. But while Barley limits its perspective to these dozen or so fighters, it only fleshes out two of them: brothers Damien and Teddy O’Donovan (Murphy and Pádraic Delaney).

Gradually, it becomes clear that Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty are leaving the other men blank as a means of illustrating the experience of soldiers in a war, and the way death becomes something to accept swiftly, with hardly a moment to mourn. This, along with the eventual fighting among the Irish, who disagree forcefully about a treaty signed with the Brits, underscores Loach’s timeliness: He clearly made this film at this moment for a reason. As we almost never see the bigger picture, the war depicted in Barley feels both small and universal, intimate and detached. Maybe, as with the formless characters, this is Loach’s intent — to remind us that a war, no matter how far away it is in time or space, is still right in front of us, its violence breeding retribution. But without a sense of connection to the characters, or to a truly compelling narrative arc, The Wind That Shakes the Barley remains solid and remote, a slice of history that’s forgotten some piece of its heart.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley opens Friday, June 8, at the Bijou.