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Friday, Nov. 10, 2006

Loach delivers wartime epic

"Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it" may not be the main point of director Ken Loach's "The Wind that Shakes the Barley," but you'll likely walk away thinking it is.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley Rating: (4.5 out of 5)
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Cillian Murphy in "The Wind that Shakes the Barley"

Director: Ken Loach
Running time: 126 minutes
Language: English, Gaelic
Opens Nov. 18
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Set in Ireland circa 1920, Loach's film depicts the Irish Republican Army's guerrilla-style struggle against the occupying British Army, and the very dirty war that results. More successfully than any Loach film since 1995's "Land and Freedom," "The Wind that Shakes the Barley" (which won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes festival) manages to meld the flow of history with a compelling personal drama, all the while -- either deliberately or coincidentally -- drawing eerie parallels with the tragedy unfolding in Iraq.

Cillian Murphy ("Batman Begins") plays young medical-school student Damien who is hoping to continue his studies in London. A confrontation with the British Black & Tans (the troops entrusted with quelling the rebellion against the empire) results in one of Damien's friends being beaten to death for refusing to speak in English (and not Gaelic). After seeing other instances of brutality, in which every poor Irish male is treated as the enemy, Damien is finally convinced by his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) to throw his lot in with the IRA.

What follows is a very realistic, unromanticized look at the realities of guerrilla war, perhaps the best such film since 1966's "The Battle of Algiers." Teddy leads his men through the hills, teaching them how to maneuver and stay alert, while civilian infiltrators -- like Damien's sweetheart Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald) -- bring them info on the British barracks, which the IRA will raid to steal guns. The film also shows the British troops trying to identify guerrillas, and using torture on those they do capture. The Abu Ghraib parallels here are inescapable, underlining the point that no matter how noble the intentions, stamping out an insurgency is a nasty business. As seen in Damien's radicalization, though, brutality creates more new enemies than it deters.

Given that Loach is an old-school lefty, his sympathies toward an oppressed people rising up against foreign occupation are natural enough. But "The Wind that Shakes the Barley" is anything but a simplistic film. It takes the notion of political violence -- the leap a man has to make before he pulls the trigger -- and pushes it to its logical and disturbing conclusion.

When we see the Black & Tans roughing up women, beating civilians mercilessly or ripping out a man's fingernails to extract information, it's easy to sympathize with the IRA when they choose to take vengeance on their tormentors. That's step one; now what happens next when they discover a friend has been coerced into ratting out IRA members to the Brits? Do they kill him too? That's a further step into the abyss.

Damien has to make an agonizing choice to kill for the cause -- Murphy's performance here will tear your heart in two -- and once he has, there's no turning back, for he has already staked his soul on its rightness. Thus, when the British -- tired of war after the bloodletting of World War I -- agree to pull out and offer a degree of autonomy, the Irish independence movement splits between those seeking compromise and those seeking social change. Given the blood that has been spilled so far, neither side is willing to talk, and the result is civil war, with Damien and Teddy ending up on opposing sides. Loach shows how revolutionary violence, once unleashed, is not easily put back into the bottle.

Teddy is a pragmatist, for whom independence from the British yoke is a sufficient first step, and Delaney's performance is charismatic enough that we can't dismiss this view. Damien, however, falls in with the idealists, who wish to see land reform and an end to the gross inequality separating landowners and the farmers. As working class IRA man Dan (Liam Cunningham) sees it, accepting compromise means that "the only thing that will change is the accents of the rich and powerful."

Loach spells out this conflict in some heated scenes of debate between the characters; some critics see this device as wordy and "uncinematic," but it serves to spell out clearly what the characters believe in, and what they're fighting for. Without such motivation, you end up back in Hollywood-land, with freedom-lovers versus evildoers. Loach shows us -- brilliantly, clearly, powerfully -- that everyone has his reason for pulling the trigger, and that's the real tragedy.

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