Ken Loach’s History Lesson
"Our film is a little step in the British confronting their imperialist history. Maybe if we tell the truth about the past we can tell the truth about the present."
The leftist British director Ken Loach has been nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes many times. On Sunday we finally found out that he makes a great victory speech, as he drove home the link between the British occupation of Ireland and today’s occupation of Iraq. More importantly, as we already knew, he makes great films, and ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ is perhaps his very best.
The greatness of this tale of the Irish War of Independence and ensuing Civil War has little to do with parallels to the present day. Viewers may eventually find themselves talking with each other about how occupying armies behave, about the right to resistance, about the relationship between religion and political violence, and about how all this relates to present-day Iraq and Afghanistan. But the movie gets us to that point by treating its immediate subject matter with unstinting care and integrity, and for two hours the audience is nowhere except Cork, 1920-22. The texture of life, language, love and loss are all here, with almost breathtaking, unglamorous ‘reality’. The director’s famous method, whereby actors are shown only their own lines, and those only briefly, helps lend this verisimilitude. Loach’s Cork-born star, Cillian Murphy, emerges quietly but definitively as the finest screen actor Ireland has ever produced, and also as part of an ensemble of otherwise little-known performers bringing fully realised individuals to life.
As some critics have noted bitterly, these rounded characters don’t really include the British troops, but this is not a failing of the film. It is clearly part of the point being made by Loach and his screenwriter Paul Laverty: these soldiers have been dehumanised, partly by their experience in the World War I trenches, but also by the contemptuous racism that occupation breeds. For them "Irish" is a dirty word, even in Ireland. The Irish rebels, in contrast, are at home in this beautiful landscape: we are constantly reminded that to commit acts of violence in your own home breeds ethical and psychological dilemmas in otherwise healthy people, and they make efforts to maintain some principle and even courtesy amid the carnage.
The carnage and brutality are brilliantly, awfully portrayed, especially as they continually revisit one emblematic rural homestead. But what really sets Loach apart, of course, is his respect for the political agency of ‘ordinary’ people. Again and again characters connect their own lives to wider issues and struggles. And they argue. A Dublin-born train driver (Liam Cunningham) joins forces with the Cork rebel column while quoting William Blake and James Connolly and pressing for a full social revolution in Ireland. A republican court, led by a rebel woman judge, jails a shopkeeper for charging extortionate interest to a poor customer in arrears, but the local IRA leader insists businessmen should be kept sweet because they are needed to fund the armed struggle. The Treaty sets off more honest, impassioned argument before it finally sets off more war, this time setting brother against brother.
What a contrast it makes with Neil Jordan’s absurd ‘Michael Collins’, which treats broadly the same set of historic events as the enactment of a psycho-sexual drama among its handful of prominent protagonists.
Although the various arguments are well ventilated, Loach’s heart is clearly with the left-republicans who opposed the Treaty. The split in 1922 gave rise, eventually, to the two largest political parties in the southern state that was left by partition, Fine Gael (the pro-Treaty side) and Fianna Fail. Fianna Fail, founded by Eamonn de Valera, has been the main party of government in Ireland for most of the time since it was first elected to power in 1932, and its current arts minister has been quoted as saying, presumably with some glee, that Fine Gaelers won’t like this movie. There is probably some truth in this: the gut politics of people whose ancestors opposed the Treaty are likelier to be inspired by Murphy and his ragged republican band than Fine Gaelers will be by their own more strait-laced, petty-bourgeois political antecedents.
Nonetheless, the politician’s view says something about the shamelessness of Fianna Fail. The film portrays that party’s anti-Treaty progenitors sympathetically, sure, but it also portrays them, accurately, as social and economic radicals who wanted to see the ownership of Ireland and its resources vested in its people. In 2006 the party is, e.g, helping Shell drive an unwanted gas production pipeline through the fields of small farmers in Mayo, with no royalties whatsoever going to the Irish state or people. Fianna Failers should see this film and hang their heads when they see how far their movement has come from its original ideals.
No, though the country is now knee-deep in corporate money, the story of Ireland in the 90 years since the Easter Rising has not ended happily, and neither does ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’. (Indeed, the film’s radiance fades slightly with a stagy moment or two in the last reel, before an ending of raw, terrible pain and futility.) Nonetheless, it should be seen not only by Irish people, but by everyone who wonders about this anti-colonial struggle, so near the imperial centre, that reverberated through the 20th century; and who also wants to know how a deeper revolution was almost made here, how it was halted, and how it might be made again, anywhere.
HARRY BROWNE lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and writes for Village magazine. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org