In one of many wrenching scenes in Ken Loach's powerful film about the Irish rebellion and civil war, "The Wind that Shakes the Barley," a man must execute an informer. The man is Damien (Cillian Murphy), a thoughtful, sensitive young man who had planned to go to London to practice medicine. Not wanting to get involved in politics, he's sucked into the fight against the occupying British when he witnesses, firsthand, the atrocities committed by the English troops—the Black and Tans—against the Irish. Outraged by the injustice, he joins his older brother Teddy (Padriac Delaney) in the guerilla war. The informer he must shoot, Chris (John Crean), is a lad he's known since childhood, and a fellow member of the "flying column" in County Cork that is setting ambushes to kill the British soldiers. Chris has been forced to betray his brothers-in-arms: if he doesn't, his family will be killed. When Damien takes the life of his friend he is crossing a line from which there will be no turning back. It's a choice revolutionaries must make, to put a cause, a principle, a goal, above a human life. And he knows that for the idea of a free Ireland, he is sacrificing not just Chris, but a part of himself.
When the treaty to create the Irish Free State is signed in 1922—a settlement in which Ireland will remain a dominion of the Empire, owing fealty to the King—Damien cannot accept it. A socialist, he sees that the treaty will do nothing to change the distribution of power and property and wealth. The idea that he shot his friend Chris for this end is insupportable.
And so, after the horrors of the guerilla war against the English, the even bloodier horrors of the civil war begin. On one side is Damien, and on the other is his brother Teddy, who feels just as strongly that the treaty is the best that can be hoped for. Had the Irish rejected the offer, the Brits would have unleashed a full-scale war with consequences too brutal to be considered. The fratricidal nature of civil war is thus given literal form as brother takes arm against brother. It may sound heavy-handed, but Loach, who has always had a near-pitch-perfect sense of verisimilitude, makes you believe it not as a metaphor but as a hard-as-nails fact.
"The Wind that Shakes the Barley," which is written by Loach's longtime collaborator, Paul Laverty, won the Palme D'Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, and stirred up a hornet's nest of protest from the Conservative press in England, which denounced the film, sight unseen, as a savage attack on England's honor. An American audience won't be bothered by such issues. Nor are we given much background on the centuries-old struggle between the English and the Irish. Loach hurls us into the fracas, circa 1920, and creates such a vivid sense of the nuts and bolts of guerilla war you almost forget you are watching a period piece. Unlike the epic sweep of Neil Jordan's "Michael Collins," which spoke in a syntax closer to Hollywood's, "The Wind" doesn't paint over its political arguments with a patina of nostalgia. Loach, the lifelong social realist, defender of the proletariat and socialist sympathizer, loves to stage long dialectical arguments in which local issues are hashed out. He did it in his superb movie about the Spanish Civil War, "Land and Freedom," and he does it again here. He's often been criticized for these "talky" set pieces, which are said to "slow down the action." I beg to disagree. I've always found these impassioned and spontaneous debates (in which the actors are encouraged to improvise) exhilarating. They offer glimpses into the down-and-dirty way history is thrashed out in the ideological trenches that historical movies never show you. Loach has no interest in making a museum piece. These muddy Cork fields, these gray, drizzly skies are captured with a physicality that seeps into your skin. And, no doubt, he has a current war in the back of his mind, and wouldn't mind a bit if the U.S. audience caught a reflection of the chaos in Iraq in this tragic tale of occupation and torture and internecine warfare.
"The Wind that Shakes the Barley" is dense, brutal, with moments of shattering emotional power, and the cast performs with fierce conviction. But I think "Land and Freedom," which is less dependent on plot contrivances, is a greater work. Loach and Laverty, you sense, have a more personal investment in the Irish civil war than in the Spanish, and it's harder for them to maintain their artistic distance. On the one hand, they want to give a balanced account of the tragic toll of civil war, allowing each side its say (but not the British side, it goes without saying), showing us how noble ideals get drowned in a tide of blood and vengeance. But impartiality is not in their nature: almost in spite of itself, the movie can't help romanticizing Murphy's Damien, who refuses to sell out his socialist dreams. (You might come away thinking that all the anti-treaty rebels were steeped in the class struggle, when in fact the socialists made up only a small faction of the Irish Republican Army.) Try as it does to escape Hollywood conventions, "The Wind" inevitably privileges the rebel over the compromiser, the dreamer over the pragmatist. In its heart of hearts, it's a movie divided against itself: even as it weeps for the victims of civil war, it can't give up its rooting interest.