Review: The Wind That Shakes The Barley (General Release)
(Dir Ken Loach Script by Paul Laverty)
23 July 2006
Please note: the film – The Wind That Shakes The Barley does require that you see it before you review it. Unlike a few right-wing scribes who think that writing an attacking ‘review’ of the director amounts to the same thing. Last week I saw the film with about 150 others in the Dublin Road cinema in Belfast. Please note also that the Press Pack produced by the makers of the film was consulted after the film had been seen. The following is a review of the film itself, not of the spin from one side or the other.
This film, judging by the English press reaction to it, is the most important film about Ireland and the War of Independence and the Civil War since the battle around Michael Collins. The battle around Michael Collins, as many will recall, also began several weeks before the film opened with assorted pundits and even professors of history rushing into print to tell the public that Neil Jordan (the director) was an amoral extremist who must be excoriated because he ‘supported violence’. The same observations were also made about Mr Loach. There can be no doubt that accordingly he too is now seen as an amoral extremist only with one important difference - he has been excoriated for not supporting the violence of the Black and Tans.
Apart from this being just one of the many forms of Tory rabble rousing, in terms of ideology it indicated that revisionist and Tory writers accept the need to re?enforce their ideas and that they don’t really trust the public to make the ‘correct’ evaluation for themselves. Whatever the intentions of such valuations they did ensure that those who made Michael Collins and The Wind That Shakes The Barley will not go bankrupt.
Now as to what follows: If you believe that because of the English press assault that The Wind That Shakes The Barley is a radical film about a revolutionary war and that therefore it is also a success as a radical work of art – please read no further. Ken Loach would be the first to agree that the last two propositions don’t always follow. The Wind That Shakes The Barley does have strong qualities – besides the fact that it makes an attempt to give a radical account of the development (1920-1923) and influence of an IRA Flying Column on the political divisions in a Cork village.
Ken Loach, following from his public statement that what is depicted in the film has relevance to the occupation of Iraq, would wish that as many Iraqi’s as possible should see the film – hopefully in what seclusion they can muster in their own homes.
If they do, they would certainly recognise the depiction of the occupying forces and the brutality of life in British prisons and some would perhaps afterwards want to find out more about Britain’s imperial role in Ireland. That is perhaps the best that those who made the film could hope for. Or is it – and this would be my argument – that we actually should accept that the devastations of The Wind That Shakes The Barley will be recognised in Iraq, for reasons Ken Loach did not intend?
This possibility – that the Film could have other effects than those intended, is certainly one that Luke Gibbons did not contemplate when reviewing Loach and the film for The Irish Times, when he writes that ‘One of the great strengths in Ken Loach’s work has been his ability to raise questions over the ‘human interest’ angle and the apolitical sphere of ‘the personal’ or ‘the love story’ that has provided an alibi for so many Hollywood happy endings.’(Irish Times 17th June 2006)
I feel duty bound to say that to compare Loach’s work to the standard Hollywood product is rather pointless. To begin with, I am sure that Ken Loach is rather used to receiving praise on these grounds from liberals – and it’s the best sort of praise that liberals can give: that Ken Loach is not in the same league as those in Hollywood who want to produce ‘happy endings’. Starting from this perspective Loach should always receive more praise than he does.
Next – starting from the other end of the matter, even cursory look at Loach’s output, would indicate that tragedy and the depiction of tragic circumstances, are one of the driving forces of his work
War and Revolution
It has often been said that the personal circumstances of the individuals involved in revolution and war become lost in the historical accounts. Art, fiction, films, memoirs and even poetry have addressed the balance.
However, there are real challenges in the fictional depiction of the circumstances of families or villages ‘at war’. Our critic on Fortnight says that the relationship between the brothers Damien O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy O’Donovan (Padraic Delaney) is ‘microcosm’ for the broader conflict between Republican and Free State Forces. That may have been the intention, but it is the outcome of such an artistic choice that concerns us here.
Apart from the more obvious objections – yes: this film has a village as its main focus, and most certainly yes: there are limited funds available for the portrayal of a Nation at War. The writer Paul Laverty purposely reduced wider contexts so that the unfolding of the inter-personal tragedy between the two brothers Damien Donavan Teddy O’Donovan could be seen to mature.
And there clearly are instances where this minimising of broader context and reference to the actuality of the world outside the village is taken to an extreme. I say ‘actuality of the world’ as opposed to the heated discussions about it in the film that ensue after the arrival of un-coded messages – usually carried by a small boy .
The scene where one such message is delivered to the Republican hide out and fumbled over, certainly added bathos to the depiction of the plight of the remaining rebels and their subsequent pathetic attack on a Free State patrol in ‘retaliation’ for the shelling of the Four Courts. The production in this respect is almost Shakespearian where messages nearly always arrive on stage unexpectedly and thus have significantly awkward consequences.
Even when the Free State Forces take control in the film they appear not to have modern strategic interests – certainly not in that important means of communication such as the telegraph (which had even reached rural Ireland by the 1920s) or the railway and its station – which makes a brief appearance at the beginning of the film to illustrate the confrontation between a British army battalion and a train driver. This is the confrontation/epiphany that motivates Damien Donavon to take up arms. After this the train station no longer has any military, strategic or narrative value and this in a country first under military occupation, then revolution and finally marshal law?
Watching The News Reel
But the most important entry into the problems, which this production has with actuality, is the newsreel scene that depicts people watching a newsreel of the signing of the Treaty in London in 1921. In that something else is going on besides the awkward melodrama of the personal confrontation within the local IRA watching in the audience. For the newsreel is manifestly edited to appear ‘false’ – a facile pretty picture (much enhanced by the Victorian piano accompaniment), which also has the added effect of reinforcing Damien’s negative histrionic reaction to it (‘that’s not what we fought for!!’).
Whatever Damien (the Republican) is doing in this scene, he is not carefully considering his options. This again is one among many such scenes in which Damien takes on the emotional burden of the film. Others may express heavy dismay at the way things are going, but it is Damien who carries the emotional weight.
Watching The News Real
This depiction of the Republican cause as an emotional burden borne by Damien Donavan would be a lot more difficult to construct had there been reference to the actuality of the village and the other important newsreels of the time. A Cork village of the type depicted in the film may not have seen the newsreel film of smouldering ruins in Cork City after it was burned by the Black and Tans (some may have actually have seen them for real). But they would have been more than likely would have seen the newsreels from the Somme and the funeral of Terence MacSwiney – the Sinn Fein mayor of Cork City. This last extraordinary and moving newsreel film most certainly played an important role in ensuring that Cork would remain a bastion of Republicanism. The lack of reference to this specific political context here also means that when interested Iraqi’s see The Barley they will never know from it who Terence MacSwiney was or how and why he became mayor of Cork and what this death actually meant for the whole of Ireland. MacSwiney died on Hunger Strike in Brixton Prison in October 1920. He had been elected (unopposed) following the death of his predecessor Sinn Fein mayor Thomas MacCurtain – MacCurtain was assassinated by The Royal Irish Constabulary in March 1920.
A Village Bereft
By paring away the ‘nation’, the ‘county’ and even Cork City itself and the death of the republican mayors and leaving inter-personal confrontations in their stead, the tragic outcome – where brother is persuaded to kill brother – takes on an inevitability where the inevitability itself becomes significant.
The translation of political/military burden into an emotional burden that Damien O’Donavan carries and which becomes heavier as the film progresses to the point where it becomes an intolerable burden makes his death unintentionally an (un)acceptable relief. Because Damien O’Donavan comes to embody Republican ideals they cannot be redeemed and when he dies, they end with him and there is no indication as to why it should have been otherwise.
With this approach it is very difficult for the viewer of The Barley to draw Loach’s next common inference (made in Land and Freedom) that the Republican or revolutionary forces had an actuality beyond its troubled discussions and that what we are watching is something other than a developing personal tragedy. There simply are not enough details in The Barley to make that point in the same way that even in an extreme case such as The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978 script by Fred Schepesi) manages to do, (Jimmy Blacksmith an aboriginal worker takes up arms to ‘start a revolution’. What he lacks in political experience he makes up for in desperation and is simply hunted down and eliminated by the state. But the film makes very clear how and why that desperation is politically and socially produced).
Developing the comparison of The Barley with Land and Freedom would seem at first a good critical exercise. The parallels are certainly there – the defence of an elected parliament against reactionary forces, the breakout of new ‘uncivil war’ within the revolutionary and Republican armies. And Land and Freedom certainly illustrates what was going on in other parts of the country which was central to the meaning of that film (an excellent script by Jim Allen who sadly died in 1999). The ‘civil war within the civil war’ in Barcelona is depicted in Land and Freedom in such a way that it left little doubt as to why the massacre of the revolutionary forces of POUM happened. It was probably the first time that a portrayal of the role of the Communist Party and the control that Moscow exerted over the Republican forces reached a new world wide audience.
But it would be wrong to expect Loach and his production team to produce an Irish Land and Freedom for the simple reason Paul Laverty is a different writer with a different perspective and interests (and with a good list of successes to his credit such as Bread and Roses and Carla’s Song both of which he wrote for Loach both of which also have won awards).
Laverty makes clear in the Press Pack that he does regard Irish revolutionary events as part of his own history (he compares Damien’s mother to his own mother).
After months of reading, it was the character of Peggy, (the grandmother who owns the farm, played by Mary O’Riordan), that started growing in my mind first. Sense of memory in Ireland struck me as very acute. I imagined someone like Peggy as a child, experiencing eviction during the famine, and then again in her 30’s during the agricultural depression of the 1870’s, perhaps with children. The famine had such a catastrophic effect, and was in many ways the product of Ireland being a colony – even as the Irish starved the British continued to export food. Peggy has lived through so much injustice and pain she is a rebel to her marrow. She is absolutely opposed to British rule and under no circumstances will she allow herself to be evicted for a third time. As memory was passed from one generation to another Peggy was the key to finding the other characters. From her, her daughter Bernadette (played by Mary Murphy) and granddaughter Sinead (played by Orla Fitzgerald), we could get a sense of the role played by the local population in the war, particularly the women.(Paul Laverty, Barley Press Pack)
I must say that I was struck by the performance of Mary O’Riordan. And after reading these words I wish Laverty had actually written the film as he saw it here! For Peggy played by Mary O’Riordan is the actual heart of the film but this and the performances of other women – are sadly all too brief – the women actually give us more in terms of performance than they do in terms of lines.
Certainly in terms of actual history of this conflict, women were/are vital to Ireland’s revolutionary tradition and to its socialist aspect in particular. In some versions of the conception/script there may have been reference to the Cumann na mBan’s (The Women’s IRA) rejection of the 1921 Treaty. If there was, it is a pity it did not get into the final version (maybe it’s time for a women scriptwriter to play another main role in Loach writing team). For the Irish socialist James Connolly women’s liberation was central to his theory of socialism. Connolly’s politics in the film is personified by one man who dies before Damien Donovan does. Listening to Dan (played by Neil Cunningham) one gets the very strong impression that when he talks of Connolly and 1916 that he had been a member of secret cult rather than the Irish Citizen’s Army and that the 1916 rising had happened many years before rather than three just three years.
The Irish Answer To Brecht
Perhaps Paul Laverty is deliberately holding back for a reason. He may actually be writing a ‘pre-history’ to the Barley for Television, which does feature Ms O’Riordan. If he is not, it is not too late. An Irish answer to Brecht’s Mother Courage (and her sons) where an Irish woman ‘having lived through so much injustice and pain’ is ‘a rebel to her marrow’ and whose daughter actually joins the Cumann na mBan would be worth watching.
So the film is a missed opportunity. Some interested Iraqis, if they get a chance to see the film, will note the parallels, a few will follow them up, but most will accept that in the end resistance appears to mean that brother kills brother and neighbour kills neighbour. The majority will not by the end agree that the reason why this happens is because of the imposition of a sectarian post-war settlement in Ireland and in Iraq.
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