A historical tragedy with real meat on its bones, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a gripping, grueling account of brothers driven apart during Ireland’s struggle for independence in the 1920s. That summary might be too Hollywood for veteran Brit filmmaker Ken Loach, who for years has rendered clear-eyed, fine-grained social portraits that don’t gloss over politics or encode radical closure in short-term sentiment. Wind is, true to Loach’s bottom-up perspective, a tale of collective history that happens to star Cillian Murphy, yet it is no less wrenching in showing family and national bonds bloodily twisted loose from each other.
Loach’s film riled some of the British press for its largely unprecedented depiction of anti-revolutionary British forces terrorizing countryfolk and torturing Irish guerrillas. Mad-dog efforts to quash rebellion and to cow the populace trigger disputes among the Irish over tactics and money issues, aggravated by class differences and the costs of arms.
The careering menace of the raging Brit soldiers, forcing villagers to strip and braining Irish train conductors, is matched by frighteningly uncompromised raids and executions by the resistance (who give the condemned the chance to write final letters). Much of this action occurs against the idyllic beauty (greens, grains, thatch) of the countryside and between men dressed in old-country caps and jackets.
Wind is rough going, all the more so with Loach’s arguably hobbling reluctance here to delve into character. But taking us past a numb state of weighing political objectives and atrocity counts, Loach hardens feeling into a painfully grounded understanding.