It’s week two of my look at Ireland on film. This week’s selection is a work of is The Wind That Shakes The Barley. Released in 2006, it was the highest-grossing Irish independent film (until displaced recently by The Guard). Set during the Irish war of independence, it’s one of the most gripping works of historical fiction ever filmed.
At the outset of the film in 1920, Dr. Damien O’ Donovan (Cillian Murphy) is about to leave his home in County Cork, Ireland. He is ready to practice medicine at a hospital in London. Damien’s brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) has chosen a vastly different path. Teddy takes command of the local flying column of the Irish Republican Army. As Damien prepares to leave, he witnesses the execution of a friend at the hands of the British Black and Tans. Damien is shaken, but initially blows off the pleas of those around him to stay in Ireland and fight. But his mind is changed when he witnesses personnel at a railway station being intimidated by the British Army for refusing to let their troops onboard. Damien then joins the IRA with Teddy.
The two brothers fight side by side, witnessing first hand the horrors of combat. Eventually a truce is signed. But it is short-lived. One part of Ireland accepts the treaty, while another see it as unfair. Ireland is then torn apart by a Civil War.
The Wind That Shakes The Barley is more than your average war movie. Part of the reason for that is it takes its time not just showing the events of the war, but it how it fundamentally changes the two brothers. While the whole cast is phenomenal, it’s Cillian Murphy that shines the brightest. Why he isn’t acknowledged more for his acting chops I do not know. He can play villains in films like Batman Begins and Red Eye, eccentrics (Breakfast on Pluto), and even a zombie apocalypse survivor (28 Days Later). In The Wind That Shakes The Barley, the evolution of his character is spellbinding. The dynamic between Murphy and Delaney is never less than compelling. They are completely believable as two brothers who respect each other despite having very different ideologies.
The film was shot in various locations in County Cork. And while the scenery may not be the star as much as it was in last week’s film, The Secret of Roan Inish, we get a gritty feel of a country at war. Director Ken Loach’s film is riveting account of a part of history not covered much in textbooks (at least in the USA). The Wind That Shakes The Barley won the coveted Palme d’Or, the highest prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. Rarely do films live up to that kind of hype. But The Wind That Shakes The Barley certainly does. It’s more than just a checklist of historical events. The film is a brilliant character study that shows us how values are tested during the worst of times. It’s worth seeing for highlighting a piece of history not often put on film, but also for its stellar performances, especially the one given by Cillian Murphy.