Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Wind that shakes the barley, The (2006)

At a loss for words, their romantic dinner sputtered to a halt

Decades from now, historians will point to Ireland as the centre of the disintegration of the British Empire. Years before Gandhi marched barefoot in India to protest the salt tax, before David Saul Marshall went to London to fight for autonomous home rule, the Irish revolted when their colonial masters reneged on a deal for autonomous self-rule after WW1, and gained their independence only after a long war, a fake indepedence, and a civil war that split the independence movement. Of course, the long sunset and deserved humiliation of the British Empire will not be complete until all 6 counties of Northern Ireland are returned to the Republic, until all colonies are independent and free, until the Empire loses even Scotland and Wales. But until that day has come, we have to make do with celebrating the dismemberment of the British Empire through films such as Gandhi, Partition, and The Wind that Shakes the Barley.

Now, compared to later tales of decolonialisation in Asia, this film is about the little-known (in the region anyway) Irish war of independence and features actors speaking in a thick brogue. At first glance, the film does comes across as outright unsexy, another dry movie about another war of independence fought by valiant heroes set in a distant past that audiences may not be interested in, but even as the film opens, you'll realise that Ken Loach isn't intent on making that kind of movie. Instead, what will strike you is the in-the-trenches atmosphere that the director dunks the audience in, right from the beginning. The naturalistic cinematography makes the green hills of Ireland look lush and beautiful, yet not so pictureseque and artificial that it forms an incongruent backdrop to hit and run guerilla tactics and mutual reprisals are exchanged between the Republican army and the British occupying force. It's amazing when you think about it: the movie has no scenes of urban warfare, battles between armies, bombs going off - yet the sense that a real war is taking place, a real insurgency is being fought, is something you can feel right in your gut. Alert audiences may even notice early on the similarities between the Irish war of independence and the Iraq war. I'm not sure if it's a deliberate agenda of Ken Loach, but the portrayal of the daily humiliations of the Irish peasants by the British occupying forces, the wanton, deliberate, malicious, yet casual cruelty of the occupying army hew too close at times to images from the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, and other modern horrors.

That Ken Loach manages to capture all this, in a naturalistic, gritty, almost documentary-like manner is certainly a minor achievement that is magnified all the more if one realises that Michael Collins, the other film on the Irish war of independence, could only tell the story through the filter of the "Great Man" historic narrative, forsaking the stories of the ordinary soldiers and civilians who fought in the war. This movie manages to capture the intensity of the physical and ideological conflict from the point of view of a small cell of Republicans in a smalll town far away from the urban centres of the war.

Even more remarkable, though, is Ken Loach's unique touch to the story of the war. The director - like his previous films - wants to reopen dead history, interrogate old wounds, give voice to the fallen, the points of view that have been set aside by the flow of history. This he does very well in the second half of the movie, which turns an ordinary story of a revolution into a lyrical piece that lays out what happens after any other revolution, about how revolutions can only end up eating the best and most noble of revolutionaries.

All in all, if you are in the mood for a war movie that feels like a war movie, The wind that shakes the barley may be a good bet. Just remember to sip that mug of Guinness; it may help you understand the thick Irish accents better.

First published at incinemas on 3 May 2007

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