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Moved to violence: Murphy in The Wind That Shakes the Barley.

Blood Brothers

By Ann Morr

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Directed by Ken Loach

British social-activist filmmak-er Ken Loach (My Name Is Joe, Raining Stones) isn’t especially popular in the United States, and that may not change just because of The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a period piece with gorgeous cinematography and a pretty-boy lead. But it should. Winner of the 2006 Palme d’Or at Cannes, TWTSTB is a devastating, haunting, and remarkably even-handed treatment of the Irish “troubles” of 1920. In it, Loach and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty, present an epic-sized yet harrowingly intimate portrait of a watershed year in the bloody struggle for Irish independence. Set in rural County Cork, the film follows the diverging ideological paths of two fictional brothers known as the O’Donovan boys, whose village is invaded by a British militia sent to quash the emerging clout of Sinn Fein. Teddy, the older O’Donovan (Padraic Delaney), is a reckless Republican guerrilla. His younger brother, Damien (Cillian Murphy), is a medical student soon to leave for an internship in London. Damien is derailed—literally, at a train station—by an incident of brutality by the “occupying force.”

We first see the brutality of the “black and tan” regiment during the opening sequence, when Damian and his village friends are accosted for playing rugby, a violation of an edict prohibiting “meetings.” Ordered to strip by the Brits, Damien remains preternaturally calm, even as another youth refuses and mouths-off in Gaelic. The youth is quickly beaten to death in front of his mother. Damien is radicalized by the killing, and his quietly escalating fury is indicated by little more than an almost imperceptible hardening of his wide blue eyes (this is a career-making performance by Murphy, best known in Hollywood as the hunky psycho from Red Eye). Damien joins his brother’s rebel faction in furtive warfare against the militia, a decision that will bring him into tragic conflict with everything, and everyone, he knows, including the dead boy’s sister (Orla Fitzgerald), a sympathizer who falls in love with him.

An innocently dim-witted schoolmate betrays the faction to the village patriarch, a gentleman farmer who, somewhat understandably, sides with the civilized British against the seemingly anarchic Republicans. At one point, the aristocrat rails against his “priest-infested backwater,” and his invective is borne out—the Republicans retaliate with a savagery that surpasses that of the British, an act that sinks the faction into a moral quagmire. The consummate screenplay invests this local, pastoral rebellion with hot points ranging from the role of the Catholic Church (martyrdom and everlasting glory make death easier) to the plight of British soldiers who have no stomach for their orders: In a wrenching encounter between Damien and an ambivalent captor, he is made to realize that some of these soldiers are veterans of the trenches of World War I.

And then Michael Collins brokers a peace treaty that splinters the rebels into mutinous outlaws and divides the brothers as Damien becomes a hard-line socialist and Teddy rises in the hierarchy. The illuminating, heartbreaking dialogue and plotting is augmented by the poignant use of traditional ballads such as the title song. The acting is uniformly compelling right down to the smallest roles, such as the stoical nana who remembers the Famine when her cottage is burned. Yet despite its lush historical naturalism, TWTSTB is unnervingly up-to-date in its evocation of the horrors of righteousness—whatever the cause and wherever the country.

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