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The Power of "Barley"

Posted at 1:02 PM on April 13, 2007 by Euan Kerr

Cillian Murphy (left) and Padraic Delaney play brothers caught up in the Irish Independence struggles in "The Wind that Shakes the Barley." (Image courtesy IFC Films)

Ken Loach faced a barrage of criticism in the British press for "Brit-bashing" after his film "The Wind that Shakes the Barley" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. That's unfortunate because the complaints mask the real point of the movie.

To be sure Loach portrays the British forces in Ireland in the early 1920's as violent bigots who use the flimsiest of reasons to pound the pulp out of anyone whose face they don't like. But Loach has created a powerful story which peers into the flames of a political rebellion and demonstrates how even of the uprising is successful such fires can burn indiscriminately.

"Barley" follows Damien O'Donovan (Cillian Murphy), a talented young doctor who sees his future in a hospital far away from the growing conflict around his rural community. But after a friend is killed for simply saying his name in Gaelic, and his brother, an Irish Republican Army leader becomes a wanted man, Damien sets aside his plans and joins the cause.

We see the ugly consequences of neighbor pitted against neighbor, of the ambushes in the glens, and how the conviction of a just cause gives people on both sides of the conflict the stomach to do terrible things.

"The Wind that Shakes the Barley" is a hard film to watch. War is always horrible, but this fight which was in many ways a civil war is doubly ugly. Loach also walks a careful line about how much historical detail to reveal in his story. While the argument about the outside troops is clear cut, the internal divisions in the Republican movement get short shrift. Maybe that's a topic for another film.

In the lead role Cillian Murphy is magnificent to watch. He swallows Damien's internal struggles early in the film, often revealing them only through a glance or a twitch of his jaw. Murphy, who played a very different character in Neil Jordan's "Breakfast on Pluto, eventually lets rip, showing how sometimes the only thing worse than losing a war, is winning.

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