June 7, 2007

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The Wind That Shakes the Barley (NR)
A citizen army fights British oppression in early 1920s Ireland in The Wind that Shakes the Barley, an interesting if not completely engrossing tale of the early days of a free (or at least freer) Ireland.

Damien (Cillian Murphy) is a soft-spoken young man who is on the verge of heading to England to work as a doctor. His brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) is a supporter of Irish independence and is a member of a plain clothes army waging rebellion on the British soldiers sent to squash their Republican leanings. After Damien and Teddy see one of their friends beaten to death by the Brits for saying his name in Gaelic, Damien decides to join up too and finds himself learning how to fight from grassy hillsides and how to engage in the sort of urban warfare that makes a potential battle of every run-in with soldiers and every Irishman a potential enemy to the British.

Damien slowly hardens — he can be gentle at the bedside of a starving child but he is forced to shoot a longtime friend when he is uncovered as a snitch and he must watch, helpless, as British soldiers brutalize Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald), a girl who helps the group (that eventually becomes the Irish Republican Army) and is sweet on Damien. By the time a treaty with the British creates the home-ruled Irish Free State and the U.K.-ruled Northern Ireland, Damien has become such a fundamentalist that he is unwilling to accept what he sees as a half-measure of freedom even though his brother accepts the treaty that will at least bring peace.

It’s hard to talk about this movie without using words like “insurgents,” “guerilla warfare,” “terrorize” and “occupying army” that have all kinds of current-event ramifications. The Wind That Shakes the Barley is pretty specifically a movie about Irish history and, if it’s saying anything about modern situations, it’s doing it in the most indirect way. The British here are bullies, who torture the combatants (fingernails are pulled) and the civilians alike (burning an old lady’s home, cutting off a woman’s hair and taking hunks of skull with it) and the movie makes you feel the seething anger of the population forced to submit to and struggle against this army. And, in a broader historical sense, it’s easy to sympathize with the IRA — after all we were once the Irish, shooting from behind trees to chase the British off our land. As for Ireland as allegory for current conflicts,well, you can argue that amongst yourselves.

It’s also hard to talk about this movie considering how much of it I didn’t understand. The characters speak in a thick brogue that had me wishing for subtitles. What did he say? Was that guns or nuns? Were they just talking about elves? I missed some of the significance of that early scene of the friend who wouldn’t speak in English because, frankly, I couldn’t tell if anybody was speaking in English.

About halfway through the movie I was catching a solid 90 percent of what was being said — excellent timing because then I had a good grasp of the post-treaty insecurity which makes for fascinating history but a somewhat muddled movie. Having established the “we hate the British” theme, the movie turns to the “we disagree to varying degrees with our fellow Irishmen who support the treaty” theme. Some of the IRA members support the treaty, some don’t support it but aren’t willing to start killing their former colleagues over it, some are socialists, some are communists — probably not too far from the actual situation except the movie doesn’t have the time to craft this story the way it does the one that kicks off the movie. Too fast we go from brothers-against-British to brother-against-brother and then we’re done. After a bit of dragging in the movie’s first two thirds, the speed of the last 40 minutes is sort of bewildering.

These muddier parts of the movie weren’t helped by the way I saw this movie — at home on my very own not-big-screen TV. The Wind That Shakes the Barley is playing in Boston but it is one of about half a dozen independent movies that are available for viewing as part of Comcast OnDemand. The movies cost $5.99 (less than a ticket at one of the artier Boston theaters). But I suspect what I gained in availability and price, I lost in spectacle (the green hills of Ireland were beautiful on my TV but could have been breathtaking on the big screen). Also, the distractions of home (unfolded laundry, the glare of the living room light, a phone call, a talkative spouse) really do take you out of the movie. Still, I completely applaud the use of cable as a delivery system for movies that we here in the small cities might not get for months or might never get. Movie: B- “In the theaters” at home: A- for the concept, B for execution.

This film is not rated. Directed by Ken Loach and written by Paul Laverty, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is two hours and four minutes long and is distributed in limited release by First Take, IFC Films. The movie is available to Comcast digital cable customers through the “IFC In Theaters” options in the movie section of OnDemand. Movies cost $5.99 each.