Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Wind That Shakes The Barley: Revisiting a Contemporary Classic

So I couldn't sleep and was perusing the Instants for something to watch that I'd already seen and didn't have to really pay attention to and have the sandman sleep me away. Boy did I make a mistake. I had seen The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) when it first came out, was very impressed and then sort of forgot about it. Big mistake. It's one of those quiet lightning films. Very much a historical epic, and told so matter-of-factly and with such bravado, directed by the absolutely brilliant Ken Loach, The Wind is up to par with cinematic classics like Schindler's List (1993). 
Director Ken Loach on set. 
Ken Loach could very well be the best English filmmaker of our time. And I say this with great difficulty because I am a huuuuuuuuge Mike Leigh aficionado, I can't sing his praises enough, and yet Loach always seems to have that subdued fire that elevates a film from interesting to unforgettable. Here's the irony. It's a film about Ireland's struggle for independence and it's directed by a British guy. Not Neil Jordan, not Jim Sheridan, a dyed in the wool Brit, and it couldn't be more visceral and more honest. That being said, Loach has been around for quite a while, slowly permeating his cinematic style. They should have a makeshift word called 'Loachesque' because his aesthetic is as unique to a filmmaker as someone like Fellini. British directors like Steve McQueen are trying to somehow imitate it, but nothing can quite compare to the rawness and the guts that Loach brings to his cinema. 
The birth of the IRA
Back to the film. It's 1920, and the Irish uprising is boiling under the surface, particularly in the small provincial towns where men and women are terrorized constantly by the Black and Tans. A 17 year old kid is brutally beaten to death because he wouldn't say his name in English only in Gaelic, which ignites a guerilla spirit in the towns people including two brothers Teddy and Damien O'Donovan (Pádraic Delaney and Cillian Murphy respectively). They decide to become militant and now there's no turning back. It's full on guerilla warfare, and it's absolutely brutal. Now you might think you know about the struggles in Ireland because you listened to a Cranberries CD and watched that Michael Collins film back in the day, but Ken Loach shows you how it ALL went down, and he leaves no stone unturned. There are scenes that are downright painful to watch, and you know what? They should be. It's a piece of history that needs dramatization, and no film does it better. 
There are many films about the IRA, none quite so honestly reflect its infancy and the dedication it took for these Davids to defeat the Goliath of the British Empire to win the Republic back for themselves. 
There is literally no break for the audience, which I usually hate, because Lars Von Trier does that and I tend to find that selfish. If you make a film like Dancer in the Dark (2001) at the end of which every audience member is contemplating different ways to kill themselves then you didn't make the film for your audience did ya? But I find the relentlessness of this film to serve a greater purpose. It brings the violence, the pathos, and the eventual redemption to that much higher of a cinematic plane. Basically it makes it stick. And though the film is sans happy ending (I mean why should it have one?) It's about the IRA not Norma Rae (hey that rhymed), there is a sense of relief the audience receives in the end because they all now feel that they've lived through a painstaking two-hour history lesson and now they actually know some shit. 
Damien (Murphy) faces the firing squad while his brother who has betrayed him, Teddy (Delaney) pleads with him to give up names of his resistance movement which he ultimately refuses to do. 
Some films are meant to entertain, and some are meant to educate usually the latter we group into the documentary pile. But with Ken Loach's guidance and his cinematic realism the likes of which we haven't seen since probably Rossellini, there seems to be very little difference between what actually happened in the hills of Cork, Ireland almost a century ago and how we see it dramatized for filmic purposes. There is absolutely no suspension of disbelief here, and that is very much intentional. It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2006, it deserved it, it's on Instant it's been there forever, if you haven't seen it, first of all, shame on you, second of all go do it! 

Trailer below: 

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