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Posts Tagged ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published December 21st 2006: 

One of the reasons I came to Japan in the first place was to try and get a different perspective on the world, to put England and my life there in a different context. But for some reason, every time this seems to be happening, I am inordinately surprised. It is very peculiar.

It happened recently while watching Ken Loach’s award winning The Wind That Shakes The Barley (Japanese title: God knows what, but thanks to my much-improved mime skills I was able to get a ticket anyway). This film has enjoyed a strikingly generous run in one of the Chjba cinemas. I suspect it was rather less accessible in England for all sorts of reasons. (Though it is the only cinema I’ve ever been in where access to the theatres is via a lift.)

Cillian Murphy gives a tremendous performance as Damien, a young doctor in 1920s Ireland. The film depicts the Irish people as enduring relentless, savage brutality from the occupying British troop and Damien eventually decides to abandon his medical career and join the armed struggle as a member of the IRA. (You can probably begin to see why this film has had a tough time getting shown in the UK.) Although an initially reluctant soldier (and his decision to join up does seem a little arbitrary) he soon becomes a dedicated fighter for the cause. As the struggle continues, he finds himself forced into acts he would once have considered unthinkable.

While I have strong reservations about certain aspects of this film, it is an outstanding piece of work – intelligent, well acted and, in places, profoundly moving. On the surface it is straightforwardly pro-IRA and anti-British, but the script is subtle enough to suggest that Damien is as much brutalised by the violence he perpetrates as by that which he endures from the British. It’s a personal tragedy that resonates strongly in this context.

As this is a Ken Loach film, it’s not a total surprise that he portrays the most sympathetic IRA members as foot soldiers in the socialist cause. Some of the most compelling sequences in the movie depict the Republican movement fracturing as realists who just want the British out and idealists who want the country completely remade squabble angrily – and it’s of course the idealists who are shown to be the most dangerous opponents.
‘I hope this Ireland we’re fighting for is worth it,’ Damien says wearily, just prior to committing the film’s key act of violence, and such is the power of his performance that he retains your sympathy throughout.

This is obviously a politically-aware and engaged movie, which is of course another way of saying that it’s completely one-sided and has a hell of an axe to grind. Its beef is of course with the British, who are demonised almost beyond credibility. The Black and Tans are depicted almost exclusively as vicious psychopaths. Lip service is paid to the idea that they are also the victims of violence, and there’s a startling confrontation between Damien and an English officer making this point, but mostly they’re just caricatures. Tellingly, every time the IRA do something that risks losing audience sympathy (and this obviously happens a lot!), very shortly afterwards the British are shown doing something even more unspeakable. (There’s a torture scene that makes the knacker-beating sequence in Casino Royale look like something from a Disney film.)

I’m English, and my home town was bombed by the IRA when I was a teenager, but I’m ashamed to say that my knowledge of Anglo-Irish history is sadly lacking. But I know enough to recognise a polemic when I see it, and almost certainly more than the average Japanese person. At the end of the picture, on the way down in the lift I could see at least one audience member had been reduced almost to tears, by a film which I would have to describe as biased and misleading. Good film-making has power, and I suspect this person’s view of this subject has been permanently coloured by the movie. Is this movie therefore an example of artistic irresponsibility? I’m really not sure, but I suspect it’s something that would have troubled me far less had I seen the film back in England.

As it is, Ken Loach has made a fine film, but one that struggles with a key issue in modern world affairs. Just because a military occupation is arguably unjust or immoral, it doesn’t necessarily mean the people violently resisting it are not terrorists. Or, to put it more succinctly, it’s possible to have a conflict where both sides are in the wrong. Merry Christmas, everyone.

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