Friday, August 25, 2006

Barley Water

Winner of this year's Cannes Palme d'Or, Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes The Barley arrives in France, fresh from its good box-office showing in Ireland and its predictable success in getting the wind up the right-wing tabloids in Britain, an achievement, however facile, that is much to its credit. I cannot say however that I find the film itself hugely satisfying, even if I find myself in agreement with many of its political stands.

This is often the case with Loach's work, in which I usually find more to admire than to love. He is at his best when he focuses on a single character, usually a 'little man', who is caught up in minor events beyond his comprehension or ability to surmount, which are woven into the socio-political actuality. There is rarely a triumph in his films, and when there is, it is usually modest enough, or heavily mitigated. Among his best films of this sort are Kes, Raining Stones, and My Name is Joe. The new film falls in with his previous historical work, such as the 1975 TV-mini-series Days of Hope and his Spanish Civil War drama Land and Freedom. The brushstrokes are broader and the political pronouncements more explicit. Which does not necessarily make for a good film.

The film concerns the political awakening of a young medical student from West Cork, played by Cillian Murphy, who after a serious of suitably dastardly raids by the Black and Tans on his village at the start of the film, abandons the hospital job he has just taken on in England to devote himself to the cause of Irish Independence, in which, conveniently enough, his older brother is already a local commander. Loach and his regular screenwriter Paul Laverty were probably right to use Cork as a backdrop as the south-western corner of the country was the main theatre - and the most vicious one - of both the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War. It does however present the Irish viewer at least with a difficult obstacle to overcome: sympathising with a shower of Cork people. But disbelief can be suspended, even within oneself, and given that it is the Black and Tans and the slightly more benign British Army pitted against them, they don't look so bad after all. The opening fifteen minutes are shamelessly manipulative however, on Loach's part. We have barely got to know any of the characters before we know them as victims, and victims only. The Tans break up a hurling match (inserted into the opening credits for its maximal visual value), citing it as a prohibited gathering. They then beat and hang a local teenager, who refuses to give his name in English (as ever in Irish films, the Gaelic pronunciation hangs very uneasily, and unconvincingly, on gallgeoir lips). Then a Dublin train driver, a former Citizen Army POW played by Liam Cunningham, is beaten by the Tans after refusing to transport British Army personnel or material, as ordered by his union, the ITGWU, in front of the medical student, O'Donovan, who promptly turns back to sign up for the Cause.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of the two wars, and indeed anyone with a close knowledge of any liberation struggle throughout history, will find the plot the least interesting thing about the film. The film ends predictably enough, though credibly so. Not surprisingly, the famous brother-versus-brother character of the Civil War is played out within the hero's family. Loach, unlike Neil Jordan in Michael Collins (who tried to convince us that Collins, armed to the teeth by the British 'died trying to take the gun out of Irish politics) is firmly on the side of the Republicans, and the film does enumerate in its various creakily mounted debates (a reprise of Land and Freedom) some of the sound historical arguments for rejecting the Treaty: the unacceptable threat of violence by the British in the event of its rejection (not unlike the behaviour of the US and Israel in this day), which in any case was most likely a bluff, as the UK would probably have courted too much disfavour both in the US and Europe by doing so; the disputing of the narrow election victory for the Free Staters in June 1923 as the Free State Constitution was made available only the morning of the ballot, something that would have had modern-day election observers seriously doubting the validity of such an election.

Loach views the Republican cause through the prism of the Republican left, which, by 1922 had the wind knocked out of it both by the decimation of the ICA in the 1916 Rising and the abstention of the Labour Party in the 1918 elections to accomodate Sinn Féin. Loach and Laverty are not fanciful enough to believe that the left was any stronger than it actually was, though at times their political matrix is thrust upon the characters in an ungainly way. Much of the political dialogue heaves in the mouths of the young actors, particularly Murphy's speechifying. I have never been convinced by Murphy's acting abilities; he is much too devoid of energy and life to carry a film but I can understand him being cast because of his bankability and his Cork origins. While the accents elsewhere in the film are better than average in an Irish film, there are one or two that bear the imprint of late twentieth century exposure to foreign media (and did anyone in Cork in 1920 ever speak of the King's "ass"?) and Orla Fitzgerald, as the token woman revolutionary, has both an accent a bit too plummy for a West Cork peasant girl and a very contemporary frizzy perm (to be lost to the villainous Tans in a spectacularly badly-directed scene that is supposed to be harrowing). When Murphy says at one point in the film that he hopes that the Republic he is fighting for will be worth the effort, he is showing a prescience far beyond anything that he demonstrates elsewhere in the film. His relationship with Cunningham's socialist train driver is cursorily treated and Murphy's social conscience never seems to be rooted in anything deeper than outrage at the Black and Tan attacks he witnesses. That a soot-faced Jackeen like the train driver, no matter how egalitarianist and internationalist, would have had that much time for the Corkonians in this film is itself questionable.

There are some remarkable sequences in the film however, such as the training drill early on in the film, where the more experienced IRB men laconically inform the new recruits how many of them would have been dead had they exposed their positions in combat. The violence is also treated in a brutal, unromanticised way. Loach also gives us a great stock character, in the local Unionist landlord Sir John Hamilton, played by Roger Allam, who recently played Steve Coogan's agent in A Cock and Bull Story. Allam has a wonderfully patrician contempt for all and sundry and he looks and sounds just like Christopher Hitchens, which makes him all the more imposing, and maddening. The final scene where Murphy's character refuses to cross over to the Free Staters, despite his brother's pleas, is also great, and thankfully Loach refuses to cast O'Donovan in a messianic way, as many a lesser director would have done.

The British tabloids of course did not like the film for its uncomplimentary portrayal of British security forces. I am not one of those Irish nationalists that views the British occupation of Ireland as one long simple narrative of brutality and repression, there were many nuances to it, and the Irish were quite often willing collaborators in the colonial project. But it is impossible to traduce the memory of the Black and Tans and the Auxiliary Police; they were filth and no amount of socio-historical reasoning, be it their status as lumpen proletariat, their exploitation by a cynical ruling class, or trauma suffered during the Great War can mitigate this. They should be viewed as the US military personnel who tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere and judged on their own personal refusal to allow the dignity of their victims. Anti-republicans in Ireland are wont to say that films such as this give 'succour' to the present-day IRA but the gulf between the idealists of the War of Independance and the base gangsters of the Provos is too wide to give this view credence. Not that the Old IRA were saints, and they were given to atrocities that will remain unpardonable in the eyes of anyone. But they were also up against a formidable and unfettered brutal adversary. Loach never glorifies the violence committed by the Irish in the film, even if he does emphasise that of the British a bit more than necessary.

At Cannes Loach and Laverty compared the situation during the Civil War with the Occupation of Iraq; there is certainly the parallel of a subjugated people not necessarily thankful for the intervention of a foreign force, but the Insurrection in Iraq is a far more heterogenous grouping than the IRA of the time, and in some parts a hell of a lot more vicious. But Loach's message that viciousness on the part of the state will only beget more is well put. As a film overall though it is one of Loach's weaker ones. The drama is sloppily presented and, as I mentioned before, the film's dialectics are over-demonstrative and the dialogue hangs uneasily on the action. Loach seems too hamstrung by hammering his message home to allow the film an organic life. That said, a Loach film even when it is very bad, like the film about the LA janitors' struggle for labour rights Bread and Roses, is always stirring stuff, and the emotional impact of The Wind That Shakes The Barley is considerable. But, even in a poor year at Cannes, it is not a worthy Palme d'Or winner. Hopefully Loach will step back from World History for his next film and get back to the little man.