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tumblr_lgtnu81d6X1qzg2bmo1_500The Wind That Shakes the Barley, the new film from director Ken Loach, does a remarkable thing. It puts a human face on a complicated political situation and makes hundreds of years of strife understandable and compelling.

Set in county Cork in the early 1920’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley is essentially the story of two brothers who start off as allies and end up as enemies. Damien O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy) is a young doctor about to leave his native Ireland to intern at a prestigious English hospital. His brother Teddy, a fierce nationalist and activist with a deep hatred of the English doesn’t want him to go and tries to convince him to stay and fight for a free Ireland.

Damien isn’t politically active, but a series of events change his mind. After witnessing the brutality of the Black and Tans, the British army who guarded Britain’s interests in Ireland, firsthand as they kill an Irish lad for refusing to speak English and beat a train conductor for refusing them entry on his vehicle, he joins his brother in the Irish Republican Army.

They work together for a time, until the Anglo-Irish Peace Agreement, which formed the Irish Free State as a dominion within the British Empire, leaves them on different sides of the ideological fence. Teddy sides with the Free Staters who believe in compromise with the English, while Damien sticks with the IRA’s goal of a totally autonomous Ireland.
The film, with it’s brutal depiction of the English Army has already stirred up controversy since the film won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. In Britain right-wing newspaper columnists have compared director Ken Loach to both propagandist Leni Riefenstahl and Hitler and have suggested that the veteran filmmaker should leave the country if he hates it so much. Loach’s film likely won’t garner that kind of hysterical response when it opens here today, and nor should it.

The film doesn’t simply condemn the English, it showcases the plight of a suppressed people who wanted something very basic—the right to govern themselves. The film is uncompromising, showing brutal, ugly and realistic violence on both sides, but also speaks to conflict outside of Ireland. The depiction of torture in the film brings to mind Abu Ghraib and Guantànamo, suggesting that not much has changed in the intervening 85 years.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a well-acted, well-directed film which suggests that freedom isn’t always free.

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