The Wind That Shakes the Barley is the story of the War of Independence which brought about the signing of the Treaty that created the Irish Free State. It is also the story of the Civil War which followed. But more importantly than that, it is about the dehumanising effects of war on the people that fight it. The main narrative of the film is the story of two brothers Damien and Teddy O Donovan (Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney) who join the IRA to try remove the English from the island of Ireland. Damien is set to go to London to continue his medical studies but a violent incident with the Black and Tans at the local train station persuades him to stay and fight.
Ken Loach's Palme D'or winning film begins simply with a game of hurling. The visual motif of two sides pitted against each other foreshadows the eventual split in the Republican movement following the signing of the Treaty. It is interesting to note how seriously the men take the game and this attitude shows throughout the film: these men are playing for keeps. They are seen training in the hills using the guerrilla tactics of ambushing and hit and run killings.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this film is the tone which is remarkably angry. The righteous anger in The Wind That Shakes the Barley is scatter shot, anger at traitors in their organisation, the English, the violent acts that they must carry out for the cause (at one point Murphy's character Damien asks as he is about to assassinate a traitor whether this Ireland of ours is worth this). By contrast there is a real lack of anger in films which cover the same historical timeframe such as Neil Jordan's Michael Collins which looks at the era from more of a thriller perspective.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley also asks important questions such as whether war and murder is ever justified for an ideal. Loach is also interested in how relevant the story is in modern times. This is vividly illustrated by a tense and almost unbearable torture scene which could not help but remind of the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. It is a really tough scene to watch but is important to recognise that this still happens now. The film is also beautifully shot in muted colours of brown, green and grey which really enhances the grim tone. The acting is superb across the board with a really good central performance by Cillian Murphy. But it is Padraic Delaney as the doomed and compromised Teddy O Donovan who is the star of the film. Great work also from Liam Cunningham as the father figure and Orla Fitzgerald who does well with a somewhat underwritten role as Damien's girlfriend Sinead.
Overall this is a superb film. It is dark, exciting, occasionally funny and harrowing in places. It was a huge success in the cinemas of Ireland beaten only recently by the success of The Guard. What this shows is that people will go to see good films from their own country once there is proper investment in advertising and marketing.