Fighting Irish

The scene seems ordinary at first -- ruddy-cheeked boys at a game of hurling, an expanse of green, postcard Ireland. There are a few flickers of roughness in the game, just enough to keep an edge under the idyll. But nothing can prepare viewers for the violence that rends the opening scene of Ken Loach's Cannes-honored The Wind That Shakes the Barley, when British henchmen break up the gathering with explosive force.

The violence in Loach's newest film, about the Irish rebellion and civil war, is masterful -- it has the sort of spastic randomness and confusion that inspires real terror. Wracked with incomprehensible screaming, the sense that one's life hangs on the whim of a madman, the gunfights and police searches in this film lack one whit of glossiness. Loach has choreographed violence verité.

Loach is known for his semi-improvised work, and a fiercely political -- some would say polemical -- sensibility. Over the course of more than 20 films in the last 40 years, his characters have jawed over politics like old-school Marxists -- or like figures penned by one. They usually square off in ways more reminiscent of chess pieces than people.

In The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Loach hasn't lost his sense of fire. But he's filled out the scenes more completely -- he depicts the chill beauty of the Irish countryside, and trains a sociologist's eye on the way that power corrupts even shining ideals. Not a new story perhaps, but told with more of a sense of questioning than command at its heart.

Because Loach can't let go of his dialectical sense of drama, two brothers form the axis of his film -- one a milky-faced young man who looks more like a consumptive poet than a die-hard revolutionary, the other a firebrand who turns to harsh pragmatism. Damien and Teddy are radicalized by the troubles of the 1920s, when marauding bands of British thugs known as the Black and Tans ravaged the Irish countryside. (Damien joins the cause of Irish liberation after his journey to medical school is interrupted by a band of Black and Tans administering a bloody beat-down in the train station.)

Loach has denied that his film has any connections to modern-day wars -- luckily his film does sidestep any tiresome one-to-one analogies, and completely inhabits its own setting. And yet the depictions of mayhem, search and seizures, torture, and especially the ways in which righteousness gives way to rage will likely have resonance for audiences who've been getting such scenes with their nightly news.

The film unreels with a sense of inexorable dread. The force of the British crackdown inspires bloody resistance, and soon the brothers begin to slip into the dark, absolutist world of revolutionaries who perform executions of foe and failed friend alike. Ireland's guerrilla war leads to a Pyrrhic victory -- in which new parliamentarians are required to declare an oath of allegiance to the British crown. In a scene of expert exposition, Loach films a crowd watching a silent public-service announcement, one man reading the intertitles for those who can't, the crowd reacting at first with stunned silence and then a roar of protest. The scene is a key turning point in the film -- it signals the moment that the triumphant insurgency will begin to eat itself.

Early on in the film, a trainer for the rebel army lets a new recruit know that mincing around on the hills will get him shot. "Trying to pick your way through the mud and keep your shoes clean …" he grumbles, "There'll be clean shoes on your corpse." It's an apt motto both for the Irish Republican movement that descends to depths of untenable radicalism in its struggle for survival and for the "Treatyites" who find themselves doing England's dirty work.

Loach's film has a sense of inevitability to it -- but somehow it's as gripping as its narrative arc is predictable. Perhaps that's because Loach saturates his study of revolution with its rhythms -- lurching, volcanic, as jerky as his scenes of violence. His actors' performances also help flesh out roles that otherwise could come across as schematic. Cillian Murphy as Damien is particularly fine -- that doomed poet look turns out to be less incongruous than expected. A purist, a romantic idealist, Damien does not dwell in the land of the living. As he grows increasingly obsessed with power and ideological purity, he can't look away from the splotches already on his soul. Compromise would make his past terrible acts -- committed in the name of a righteous cause -- completely meaningless. Blood must justify past blood.

Amidst the turmoil, Loach's countryside moves in unyielding cycles -- as does history, Loach seems to imply. The Wind That Shakes the Barley still shows Loach's weakness for dialectics. But there is something spellbinding in the way that the cogs of bloody revolution keep churning in Loach's film -- murderers and martyrs and those who are both, all grist for an unceasing and unforgiving fate.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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