'I tried not to get into this war and did, now I try to get out, and can't.'
Those lines, spoken by Damien (Cilian Murphy) towards the end of the brilliant, angry 'The wind that shakes the Barley' bemoans the irrationality behind why people fight wars over land, ethnicity and language and why, despite their best efforts, they are unable to prevent themselves from being involved.
The place is Northern Ireland, the time, early 1920's. At the start of the film, we are relentlessly thrust into the shaky politics of the era when British mercenaries attack a small Northern Irish town and brutally torture to death a young man who can't pronounce his name in English. After years of borne tyranny, a rebel movement is launched in retaliation. Their tactics are patchy, but they possess a single minded determination that demonstrates the extent to which they are willing to win their independence. Damien, an Irish doctor preparing to leave for London at the start of the film, is reluctant at first, but circumstances force him to change his perspective and join the cause with his brother Teddy. Because they don't have the appropriate weapons, their group trains with hockey sticks, until they are able to infiltrate a nearby British stronghold and steal some guns. And so the resistance continues until it reaches a point where a compromise of judgment and preference must be made.
Director Ken Loach and scriptwriter Paul Laverty achieve something profound with the material in their hands; they turn the political into the personal. I consider myself a non political, passive being, but 'Barley' made me believe that the transformation that happened to Cilian Murphy's Damien could have happened to me had I been in the same situation. This is best exemplified by two scenes of rampant cruelty, one inflicted by Damien on a British soldier who defects and helps the Irish cause, and the other where Damien, his brother and their ragtag crew witness, while hidden behind bushes, the vindictive behaviour of the British mercenaries towards the women they have been protecting and living with. As an audience, we are caught devastated and unprepared.
Is the film balanced? I do not know, but it tells a powerful story and it does everything a good film should be capable of doing. It may not be entirely truthful (the film and its subjects are fictional) but there is truth in what it tells us about the darker side of British imperialism.
People may tell you that this is a film about Ireland standing upto Britain, that it is a war film where the oppressed use clumsy, desperate guerilla tactics to take on the oppressors. For me, it was about how, as individuals, our beliefs and values make us the stubborn men that we are and how this can sometimes alienate the people around us. It is uncommon for a film to be about personal choices (the decisions that the Cilian Murphy character makes at the end) and yet address a collective concern, but 'Barley' does both by staggering us with its remarkable examinations. - Faizan Rashid