Thursday, April 05, 2007
“Wind that Shakes the Barley”,
Last night I finally caught up with the “Wind that Shakes the Barley”, and I have to say I was disappointed and I consider the film to have been wildly over-praised. Perhaps because any film showing a British army of occupation will be well received during the context of the Iraq war.
Stylistically, I have a problem with the way Loach rather clumsily seeks to educate the audience, with dialogue and indeed whole scenes inserted just to inform. For example when the character played by Cillian Murphy rather incongruously explains Sinn Fein’s election victory to a British officer. Loach could have achieved much stronger artistic effect by simply filming the story about two brothers who ended up on different sides in a civil war, without breaking off every few minutes for a history lesson.
But as loach has consciously set out to make a political film, then he must be judged on both the politics and the artistic content. The interaction between the two starts with loach’s choice to make the film about a rural IRA unit, away from the centre of action, and the major players. Of course great insight can be achieved by looking at the effect of major historical events on ordinary people, but Loach’s choice causes him some problems. Firstly, there is no sense in the film of the enormous, almost feverish ferment in Ireland during this period, a good introduction to which can be found, for example, in C Desmond Greaves’s book “Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution”.
And shifting the centre of action to a rural location also means that the key turning point happens off stage: the attack on anti-Treaty forces in Dublin’s Four Courts by the Free State army with British help in 1922, and the subsequent execution of IRA leaders, Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey and Richard Barrett. In the film, the first act of civil war we see is anti-Treaty IRA men shooting Free state soldiers – a reversal of history. We get a clear idea in Loach’s film of what was driving the pro-Treaty camp, but the strategy of the anti-treaty forces remains opaque. (they had sought to provoke a British reoccupation that would reunite the republicans, and restart the war of independence, without the stranglehold of the Treaty) This is despite the fact that Loach clearly feels more sympathy with the anti-treaty forces.
This is a weakness of Loach’s decision to film the story from the point of view of the rank and file, had he instead made a biography of, for example, Liam Mellows or IRA chief Liam Lynch, the politics would have been much clearer, and without the need for clunky explanatory inserts.
Loach also imposes some of his own politics onto the historical account. For example, watching the Wind that Shakes the Barley gives the impression that the division between pro and anti treaty forces was also influenced by those who were in favour or opposed to a socialist workers’ republic. In fact many of the anti-Treaty forces – after all backed by Éamon (“Labour must wait”) de Valera, were simply nationalist patriots.
Loach also reruns, almost word for word, the debate from “Land and Freedom”, showing a court case where an Irish republican court rules punitively against a small landlord, in favour of a tenant. This starts an argument about whether social justice must wait on military victory. However, this makes the mistake of identifying the small scale farmer or shop keeper, with the big capitalists. In fact, as we see today in Palestine, national oppression forces a common interest between employers and workers, simultaneous to their differing class interests.
Another missed opportunity,in the current context, is that the republican movement seems to have only two strategies - militarism and capitulation. It is not hard to draw contemporary relevance, and as Loach was determined to introduce political debate between his characters, then some discussion of alternative strategies of resistance apart from militarism might have been interesting
The “Wind that Shakes the Barley” is worth seeing, but it is not as good as it has been built up.