The leftfield winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" tells the story of a group of Irish Republican Army members during the heady moments when Ireland was on the cusp of independence from Britain. But while there is much to admire here, the film, screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, lacks the visceral impact to really work as a whole.
The story begins with Damien (Cillian Murphy, excellent as always) preparing to go to medical school in London when a friend is killed by the British for mouthing off. He decides to stay and join his brother Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) and a group of friends in an armed rebellion. The occupying forces hold the Irish in utter contempt (Roger Allam, the fascist TV commentator in "V For Vendetta" and effectively nasty here as a British official, refers to the Emerald Isle as a "priest-infested backwater").
Director Ken Loach has an excellent eye for period detail, and the film has a wonderful sense of the bonds (and fissures) within the community. Damien’s romance with the politically sympathetic Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald) is poignant and uncertain. "Wind" also bristles with the vagaries of about the political and social situation. An attempt to start an independent court devolves into an ideological shouting match in its first session, and the fledgling soldiers must deal with the repercussions of going into battle with family and friends; in some cases, their actions are as ignoble as those they claim to be against. And the breathtaking green vistas, the battleground for this guerilla war, are beautiful and ominous in equal measure.
And yet, in the end, there’s something missing from "Wind" that keeps it from resonating as it should. Once a peace treaty is signed between Ireland and Britain, the film becomes far less involving. Characters become mouthpieces for lengthy political dissertations rather than people with resonant convictions, and much of the historical background is handled by having someone burst into a room with important news. There’s something deflating about witnessing a film establish such a strong tone only to get bogged down into what ends up seeming like a contentious meeting of the planning board.
"The Wind That Shakes the Barley" is not a bad film, but had it maintained the elegiac tone of its early scenes, it could have been more than just a history lesson.
"The Wind That Shakes The Barley" is currently at 60 percent on the Tomatmeter; some critics have praised the film’s atmosphere and performances, while others say it lacks the human touch of Loach’s best work.