Ireland in 1920, and the British have sent the so called "Black and Tans" to quell the unrest there. Recently graduated medical student Damien (Cillian Murphy) doesn't want to be drawn into the brutality he sees just about every day, that is until he and his friends are accosted by the British soldiers for playing a game of hurling which constitutes an illegal gathering in the military's eyes. One thing leads to another, and the soldiers end up killing one of Damien's friends for not answering to his name in English. Still Damien wants to travel to London to continue his studies, until an incident at the railway station changes his mind for good...
Veteran director - and possessor of one of the keenest social consciences in UK film - Ken Loach won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for The Wind that Shakes the Barley, but however uncompromising the film was, was it really his best work? Certainly it exhibited his naturalistic style to tell the story of how the British presence in Ireland resulted in a civil war, and it told the viewer more about the Troubles than a Hollywood blockbuster like Michael Collins could have hoped to by keeping the focus of the story on two ordinary Irishmen brought into the conflict more by circumstance than design.
Damien and his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) are at the heart of the plot, and for the first half of the running time they are very much on the same side. However, personalities are more difficult to define in this telling, with the Irishmen all pretty much cut from the same cloth until the halfway mark, although they are awarded more depth than the actors playing the largely despicable Brits, who mostly come across as brutal, needlessly aggressive and hopelessly prejudiced from the lowliest troops to the highest politician: the darkest side of the Empire.
At that railway station, Damien sees the staff beaten up for towing their union line and not allowing UK soldiers onto their carriages, which makes up his mind to join the I.R.A. Loach and his regular scriptwriter Paul Laverty were accused of sympathising with terrorists by some in the right wing quarters of the media when the film came out, but they actually paint a more complicated picture than simple black and white. It's true that we witness the Republicans carrying out attacks, but the filmmakers allow us to understand what has brought them to this state.
One of Loach's strengths is his ability to include humour that arises organically from the situations he depicts, but of course there precious little to laugh at in The Wind that Shakes the Barley. This means it's the grim side of Loach all the way, and while there's no denying his talent in bringing this to life, it does come across as a stern history lesson for much of it, with a danger of the characters becoming mouthpieces for various arguments and political stances. With few lapses (did people really say "Shut the fuck up" in the twenties?), the production feels authentic, and the director's love of the underdog and his socialist tenets are well to the fore, but it's an unavoidably joyless experience overall, with a needless element of soap opera melodrama mixed in to the ending. Music by George Fenton.