When "black and tan" British soldiers drop Irish freedom-fighter suspect Teddy (Padraic Delaney) onto a cell floor with his friends, they immediately wonder if he's told the Brits anything names or locations of weapons stashes and safe houses. And they've got 10 good reasons to worry: He's still shaking and sweating and groaning, his fingernails ripped out by a soldier with a rusty pair of pliers. Doctor-turned-insurgent Damien (Cillian Murphy) tends to Teddy's trembling digits, and Teddy musters the breath to swear that he told them nothing. Another man asks Damien how long he's known Teddy, wondering if they can trust him. "I've known him all my life," Damien says. "He's me brother."
With that you do and don't know just where British director Ken Loach's The Wind that Shakes the Barley is going. Set in 1920 in Ireland's rural County Cork, Wind follows the fight for Irish independence and the eventual 1921 treaty partitioning the island through the two young men. It's a familiar narrative device for contemporary war movies everything from Michael Cimino's 1978 The Deer Hunter to Peter Weir's 1981 Gallipoli to Srdjan Dragojevic's 1996 Pretty Village Pretty Flame follows this formula but Loach and longtime screenwriting partner Paul Laverty temper their script with indomitable ferocity, simmering melancholia and inescapable harshness, as well as moments of sheer beauty and grace. Wind looks in on the Irish War of Independence as a guerrilla campaign of young men who should be doing anything but having to take up arms, fighting to defend a land that looks, through cinematographer Barry Ackroyd's camera, as if touched and tended to by God herself. That scenery's beauty rubbing against the action's savagery makes Wind somewhat easier to endure. (Too much constant horror and it'd be like watching the evening news.) So, too, does Loach's longstanding sociopolitical eye, which recognizes a class component to the Irish insurrection that far too many movies Neil Jordan's Michael Collins, for example ignore for the romantic view of the oppressed rising up against an oppressor. That admittance does mean a good deal of political talk Loach and Laverty productions are loved (and loathed) for their talkiness. Here it works Wind wouldn't be the resilient, astonishingly realistic examination of war's inevitable weariness without it.
A great deal of the picture's success also resides in Murphy's boyishly young face and reedy body. British acts of violence radicalize Damien, slotted to move to London for his residency. He enters the IRA, and come the time he's kneeling over Teddy tending to his raw, bleeding fingertips, Damien has become a trusted soldier. But the mounting toil infects Damien's entire being. When forced to execute an informer and collaborating landowner, Murphy lets the force of Damien's mind making his body do what it doesn't want to weigh down his every step, breath and movement across a grassy ridge. He asks the two men for their letters the letters they get to write to loved ones to be delivered after their deaths and Murphy chokes down a breath when the informer tells him he didn't know what to write to his mother. Damien assures him he'll explain it to her, and Murphy makes Damien's clenched-teeth breathing as he takes heavy steps away to a proper firing distance look like he is the one about to be killed.
And Damien carries the collateral fallout of the fight with every movement of his body which makes the movie's final moments all the more devastating, after partitioning divides the Irish people and pits brother against brother. Loach handles British soldiers' atrocities with an unflinching eye a small cadre terrorizing a woman they believe to be harboring IRA members is particularly hard to take but he just as deftly dramatizes the horrors the Irish inflict upon each other in the early stages of bloody civil war. He doesn't come out and say it, but it's insinuated that letting people fight each other is a much better way to control them than when they're all fighting an occupying force.
And that delicate eye is what makes Wind stay with you. Loach lets his characters speak their minds but never lets the movie get on a soapbox itself. Wind establishes its casually unnerving process with its opening, simple contrast between two scenes: Young Irish men playing hurling, and those same young Irish men accosted by British soldiers, where one of their rank's refusal to say his name in English costs him his life. Over the next two hours he similarly lets his movie propel itself, never putting commentary into characters' mouths when his pictures convey more than any amount of rhetoric could.
Opens Friday, May 4, at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Bret McCabe writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.