But his Irish Civil War drama also comes with some notoriety, courtesy of England’s conservative press. Four decades of tilting at the establishment make Loach a controversial figure in British cinema, and a Daily Telegraph tirade labeling the filmmaker a Brit-hater who sponges off the state to make repulsive films won’t hurt his U.S. box office.
“The Wind That Shakes The Barley” tackles the thorniest phase of Ireland’s struggle for independence — the 1922 civil war that followed the Treaty negotiated by Michael Collins, which had yielded a partitioned Ireland and an oath of allegiance to the crown. The heated Irish response to the Treaty split the united nationalist front that had fought Britain to a standstill, and triggered Ireland’s descent to internecine warfare.
Loach concentrates neither on major happenings in Dublin nor familiar historic figures, but on fictitious events in rural Cork, crucible of Ireland’s most ferocious resistance to the Treaty. His lead characters are the O’Donovan brothers, Teddy (Padraic Delaney), a local Volunteer leader, and Damien (Cillian Murphy), a medical student.
Damien is politically uninvolved and determined to complete his studies in England, but finds his latent nationalism stirred by murders and beatings by the Black and Tans, and he takes up arms alongside Teddy against the crown. The student healer becomes an efficient killer, leading attacks on British soldiers and executing a childhood friend turned informer, but has doubts as to whether this new Ireland is worth all the bloodshed.
The political clarity of Damien’s struggle between Ireland and Empire becomes murkier when the pragmatists among his cohorts decide to back the Treaty, lest rejection of the deal causes the British to return. Thus the fuse is lit to detonate lethal conflict between former comrades.
Loach may have stirred the anger of believers in the British Empire as a benign global influence, a jolly coterie in the colonies of tweedy cartographers, railway engineers and harbor builders, but the horrific incidents depicted in his film have parallels with real events of the time. Loach’s urban socialist template may be an awkward fit on the rural politics of Co. Cork, and his proxy, Dublin traindriver Dan (Liam Cunningham, the film’s only non-Corkonian Irish actor, in a strong performance) making a pitch for Connollyite land reform would carry little water in a locale where private ownership of farmland is a fundamental issue.
But his emotive film is a bold scrutiny of a still-painful wound few in Ireland have dared examine, and he illuminates the darkest phase of the path to independence without shrinking from the brutality of the Irish against their own, as well as against their traditional foes. Cillian Murphy consolidates his reputation in the lead role, and the film demands to be seen as a provocative drama about the damage that larger political struggles can inflict on ordinary human lives.