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Thursday, 28 July 2011

Irish Film Marathon Part 2

The Wind That Shakes The Barley is a 2006 film directed by English director Ken Loach.
It is the most successful independently financed film made in Ireland, with a budget of around 6 million. It was a resounding success and a triumph for independent filmmaking. It won the prestigious Pal D'Or by a unanimous vote. I personally think it was a most deserving winner as it is certainly one of the finest films of the decade.

The Wind That Shakes The Barley is widely held to be a masterpiece of independent Cinema and of Irish Cinema in particular.
It shares many themes and similarities with an earlier Irish films, Michael Collins, a big budget biopic of one of the most important men of the times.
However in my opinion this film is superior, despite the obvious differences in budget size. But more on that later.

 The Wind That Shakes The Barley tells of the Irish War Of Independence and the subsequent Civil War. To simplifying things, the Irish first rose up against the English who had ruled Ireland ruthlessly for centuries, the war was a particularly terrible one, which acts of brutality on both sides. When the English were sufficiently weakened they opened negotiations with the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and offered to withdraw all of their troops and form their own government, on the condition that they swore allegiance to the Queen and that the North remained in under their rule.
Then comes a division in the ranks of the IRA, some, weary of war, decide that this treaty is the best they'll get and resign themselves to their fate, but others find that victory, meaning absolute freedom from English rule is within their reach. Thus a Civil War begins, with the New Irish Army in conflict with the remnants of the IRA.
Damien and Teddy are two brothers in County Cork who this conflict affects in a direct way, the story is told from Damien's point of view, Damien is one of those who resists the treaty and continues the armed struggle, but his brother takes the other side.

Of course this brother vs brother plot device makes for a good example of the effect the conflict had on the Irish people, I mean brother fighting brother is the epitome of divisiveness. So as much as this theme is interesting from a narrative point of view, as it symbolises the divided Ireland, it isn't exactly believable from a human and realistic point of view, especially towards the end. It is extremely hard to believe that such things could happen, of course I'm not saying it's impossible but it just felt a bit extreme. However it certainly gets ken Loach's message through in a way you won't soon forget, but I couldn't help but think it was a bit heavy handed.
As for the rest of the film, Ken Loach shows much sensitivity in handling the subject whcih is fortunate as the subject matter is so sensitive to both the English and the Irish that to handle it heavy handedly would have been disastrous, furthermore one must keep in mind that these events didn't take place such a long time ago relatively speaking, it was less than 90 years ago and I'm sure there are many people alive now whose parents lived through these times or maybe even a few who lived through them themselves.

Loach particularly excels at bringing the times to life on the screen and transporting the viewer to them easily. 
The costumes, weapons, vehicles, landscape, everything is flawlessly portrayed and instantly engaging. The minimal budget was put to exceptionally good use, as this film has better production values than many films I've seen with ten times as much money behind them. It all depends on the skill of the director and how he puts the money to use.
Given that it looks like most of the budget went into the production design, I assume the actors were paid a relatively small amount. But this does not mean that the performances are poor, in fact it is excellent as is often the case with these independently produced films with smaller salaries for the actors, as this means the actors would have accepted because they were genuinely interested or passionate about the subject matter and thus give far better performances than those who are in a film solely for the salary.
Cillain Murphy is in the lead role and excels, he has been popping up in a few big productions these over the last few years but from this small roles alone I never would have thought he was such a talented actor. He's a young actor with a solid fan base, especially amongst online bloggers I've noticed, and with interesting career choices. The rest of the cast is made up of little known actors who are all talented. One mention must go to Liam Cunningham though, as he is one of Ireland's most overlooked yet talented actors, probably because he is mainly a supporting actor yet in my opinion he never fails to deliver a solid performance no matter the overall quality of the film. He was particularly memorable in Harry Brown I thought.

Everything about the film is as quintessentially Irish as The Commitments was but this is showing another side to Ireland, in fact it's showing how modern Ireland was born, and it was a troubled birth indeed from which the country has yet to recover. Ken Loach and his crew capture the Irish landscapes sheer beauty like few others have before on film, they do not concentrate on the more spectacular shots, instead going for a more focused look at what makes the countryside so beautiful, and they succeed with beautiful shots of mist over fields, stone walls and small country lanes, all relatively simple scenery but the kind you'd only see here in Ireland.(I have interspersed screenshots depicting this throughout the review)
But he doesn't just apply this focused look to the scenery, in fact the whole story is built up around that idea. So parallels can easily be drawn in between the focused cinematography and the story that centres around only a few people caught in the midst of a much larger conflict.
Ken Loach describes as being about "civil war in microcosm", a very interesting idea and reminiscent of his earlier film Land And Freedom, which focuses on the Spanish Civil War and while it isn't as good as The Wind That Shakes The Barley, I still think it's a very good film that is far to often overlooked.
Land And Freedom is strikingly similar to this film but I feel is an inferior work mainly due to the overall production values being much poorer and some problems with the narrative. I'd still recommend it though.

This idea of showing the conflict in a microcosm is not a particularly new one, it has been put to use many times before but I feel that here it is put to it's best possible use, as by ignoring the larger scale of things, Loach really sheds some light upon what he conflict meant for the ordinary people, how they responded to the various events and how they viewed the treaty. In this way it is far superior to Michael Collins, a film which deals on the opposite side of the spectrum and focuses solely on the big names of the conflict, Collins, De Valera etc...

I think the main criticism that can be brought against this film is the manner in which it approaches the subject. Ken Loach is extremely politically minded and this has been a large part of his films for many years now.
Some have argued that the films portrayal of the British and the Irish is too Black and White, that is to say the British are portrayed as oppressive villains and the Irish as romantic heroes, but this is some of the most easily destructed arguments I've ever seen against a film. For one thing the British are not shown as universally evil villains but rather as soldiers doing their duty to their country. Loach even goes to great pains to get this across in one particular scene.
Furthermore, the Irish are far from romantic heroes, they are of course portrayed sympathetically at first, but soon one cannot help but feel repelled by their barbarity, especially when they kill an young informer in cold blood. This feeling increases as the film goes on and culminates when half the characters join the New Irish Army and carry out atrocities in the same vein as those carried out by the English not long before.
So the film is not as Black and White as it may seem at first, and there are no villains, in fact Michael Collins is far more deserving on this kind of criticism as it obviously paints De Valera as the villain of the story and Michael Collins as a very romantic hero indeed.

I mentioned Ken Loach's highly political nature, this may not please some viewers as the film takes is very much in support of independence for Ireland and Loach's Leftist leanings are evident throughout, not as much as in Land and Freedom however. Here the film takes exactly the opposite view than that of Michael Collins, and seems to support those who continued fighting while showing those who accept the treaty as traitors of sorts. Whereas Michael Collins shows these exact same people as heroes and those who continue fighting as bloodthirsty villains.

This complete opposite of views can be disconcerting and certainly makes it very tough to decide where ones sympathies lie, I personally think the IRA's continued struggle brought only suffering to Ireland when it should have been rebuilding itself after the Revolution, not all will share my point of view but I think that the Treaty was the best possible offer they could have got out of the English.

Some viewers may find certain scenes quite disturbing, I know I did, not for violence shown as their is little to no blood or other such things, but rather because the actors do such an excellent job that they actually become terrifying, these scenes are almost unbearably tense as you know anyone could be killed at any moment and the hatred between these people is palpable. 

But to those worried about such things, I'd recommend giving the film a go nonetheless, it's not a Horror film, none of this tension is used against the audience but rather against the characters, their is little violence and thankfully no sexual assaults, a plot device I partiuclarly dislike as I find it generally to be a rather unnecessary way to provoke and shock the viewer, but such a film as The WInd That Shakes The Barley have no need for such scenes, for a start the subject in controversial enough as it is, and such acts are not need on screen as what takes place is horrifying enough in it's own way.

But all that aside, it's still a fantastic film, superbly shot, competently acted and with a thought provoking subject rich in drama, some may say a bit to melodramatic at times, but I can't say I had a problem with that, it's brother against brother storyline was far more convincing than the similar plot device employed in Michael Collins, where it was largely unnecessary. Also, the romantic plot line was of little interest to the film as a whole but still brought a bit of humanity to the proceedings and was nowhere near as useless as that in Michael Collins.

To end the review, I must say that I apologise to having used Michael Collins as an example so many times, I should have brought up some other films occasionally, but I find it's similarities and contradictions with The Wind That Shakes The Barley to be fascinating, it is not often one comes across to films so different in every way that deal with what is ultimately the same story.
All in all The Wind That Shakes The Barley is a great film despite a few minor flaws, I'd highly recommend it even though I think it may be better to have a minimum of knowledge about the times and the events that took place beforehand, as the film doesn't really spell it out for you.

The previous entry to the blogathon can be found here!
Next up for reviewing is Michael Collins, I thought it would be interesting to review both these films back to back.

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