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Ghost Canyon

'The Wind That Shakes the Barley'
(Cillian Murphy, Padraic Delaney,, et al / DVD / NR / (2006) 2007 / IFC Films)

Overview: Driven by a deep sense of duty and a love for his country, Damien (Cillian Murphy) abandons his burgeoning career as a doctor and joins his brother, Teddy in a dangerous and violent fight for freedom. As the Irish freedom fighters bold tactics bring the British to a breaking point, both sides finally agree to a treaty to end the bloodshed. But, despite the apparent victory, civil war erupts and families who fought side by side, find themselves pitted against one another, putting their loyalties to the ultimate test.

DVD Verdict: Ireland in the early Twenties exploded into armed rebellion against the British. Two brothers at first made opposite decisions. A group of Black and Tan British soldiers arrive at a farm where the brothers and a group of other young men are resting after a hurling game (something like field hockey). The British terrorize everyone there, the men, the women, the aged and the young. They beat and kill one man for refusing to give his name in English. When they roar off, one brother, Teddy (Padraic Delaney), immediately helps form the men into armed resistors.

Damien (Cillian Murphy), a medical student, decides to go on to London to a prestigious medical school where he is enrolled to finish his studies. At the train station he witnesses another group of soldiers attack and beat the train's conductor and engineer. The attacks are filled with screams and rifle butts. Damien returns to the village and joins the armed resistors.

From then on we're in the middle of a rag-tag guerilla war, driven by a stern sense of justice and a determination to force the British out of Ireland. The British use wide-spread intimidation, brutality, imprisonment and executions by courts martial. Some of the men we've met die, British soldiers die, hostages die, traitors die, a young friend of Damien's who gave information is executed by Damien. He slowly moves from a reluctant fighter to a man who has become single-minded in what he does. When a truce is declared and a peace treaty is finally agreed upon in 1922 between the British Government and Sinn Fein, the stark reality of compromise splits the fighters.

On the one hand, there will be an Irish Free State with British troops withdrawn. On the other hand, it will be a member of the British Commonwealth, an oath of allegiance to the British crown will be required and Northern Ireland will remain an integral part of Britain. Is this what we fought give allegiance to the British, many ask? What we fought for was independence and in most regards we have it, say others. Ireland must be whole, say some. If we don't agree the British will flood the island with their troops, say others. We watch a civil war begin, with Irishmen taking up arms and killing each other. For the brothers, who once fought the British together, it means a crucial split. One fights to put down the rebellion against the newly independent Irish state, the other vows to fight until all Ireland is completely free.

One of my friends spoke of the film saying that there isn't much nuance to either side. That's probably because, nurtured by terrible actions and long memories, there wasn't much nuance in real life. The Wind That Shapes the Barley is a sad, powerful and emotional film. It doesn't shy away from the brutality and torture by British soldiers or the ruthlessness of the armed response. Most of all, we come face to face with both the courage and the grime needed by the Irish to finally, after centuries of ruthless, condescending oppression, rid most of the island of the British. The acting is uniformly persuasive, especially by Murphy and Delaney as the two brothers. Cillian Murphy, in particular gives a subtle and mesmerizing performance. The brothers' fate may not be tragic but it is so sad it makes you reflect on what you've seen. That's not a bad thing. Each brother in his own way pays for the choices he makes.

And the title? It's from a 19th Century poem that tells of a young Irish boy who soon will leave his sweetheart to join others fighting the English in the 1798 rebellion. "But blood for blood without remorse I've taken at Oulart Hollow And laid my true love's clay cold corpse where I full soon may follow As round her grave I wander drear, noon, night and morning early With breaking heart when e'er I hear the wind that shakes the barley." They would carry barley in their pockets as provisions on the march. When they were slain and their bodies pitched into unmarked mass graves by the English, from their bodies the sprouting barley came to symbolise that Irish resistance to the British would never die.

Director Ken Loach is painting on a large canvas here as this subject matter requires but his artist's palette is muted by the many gallons of blood and the many buckets of guts spilled by both the Irish and the British in this rebellion. "Barley" has the soul of an anti-war movie and the style of a thriller. There are no winners here, no good people or bad people, there is logic on both sides of this war ... again, that's the tragic dilemma. This is a Widescreen Presentation (1.85:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs and comes with the Special Features of:

Carry On Ken: A Look at the Work of Director Ken Loach
Feture Commentary with Director Ken Loach and Historical Advisor Professor Donal O'Driscoll