Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Mighty Wind

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2007)

Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley is an achingly sad tale of 1920’s Ireland, centering on a young doctor who becomes radicalized by the brutality of the occupying British and joins an IRA column; the local leader is his own brother. The cause splits in two after the 1921 peace treaty: one brother accepts the terms, including the oath of allegiance to the British crown, as a pragmatic necessity; the other sees only the continuation of subjugation. Brother turns against brother, and the new “Free State” establishment becomes almost indistinguishable from its predecessor, setting up a tragic conclusion.

Loach doesn’t provide any opening or closing captions to set the scene, and many viewers will be confused by at least some of the details. But this is what’s almost endearing about the 70-year-old director – his infuriated, uncompromising simplicity. I don’t mean to imply that Loach’s films aren’t fully stimulating or that they’re narrowly propagandistic, only that his core purpose has seldom wavered: to make us angry.

Why Does This Man Loathe His Country?

It works both ways of course. The Globe and Mail cited the following British headline: “Why does this man loathe his country?” Another wrote: “Loach hates this country, yet leeches off it, using public funds to make his repulsive films.” I don’t know about hatred and loathing, but it’s obviously true that Loach seethes at the hypocrisy of the establishment, at the superficiality of the public discourse. Ireland is a cruel test for one’s patriotism, and I have got myself into trouble on that subject in the past. But I do know that when I was growing up in Britain in the 70’s and 80’s, the Irish situation was an escalating cause of my own restlessness. Like the Falklands later, and like Iraq now, it merely seemed to me an endless psychic drain, that might have been created expressly to distract and suppress the country’s better nature. And although I am no historian, I’m not sure there’s any way to look at it without damning the handiwork of a lumbering, self-absorbed British Empire and its trite judgments. Of course, it’s questionable to judge the actions of a century ago by modern standards. But I think Loach’s point is that even vague awareness and acknowledgment would be an improvement on the contemporary norm, and that the refusal of these are a continuing blight on the national ‘character”.

No surprise that such a project might be inflammatory. Loach drops us right into the doctor’s politicization, through a couple of sequences that show the British troops as downright scum of the earth. Subsequently there will be space for argument and dialectic – this film has a couple of Loach’s trademark scenes in which he allows for lengthy debate between the characters (fascinating in this instance for illuminating how the goal of a free Ireland was intertwined with a broader ideological debate about the distribution of wealth and the structure of the state apparatus). But nothing can overcome the initial punch to our sympathies. Sight And Sound put it this way: “Loach wants…to remind us that the IRA’s original cause was irrefutably just, whatever its subsequent behaviour. That he does so by employing the black-and-white simplicities of propaganda comes as small surprise.”

Bleed With Everyone Else

Loach’s films, however traumatic, usually have a fair amount of humour in them - he has a perfect ear for the profane tumbling feisty discourse of his characters, and realizing that their ability to mouth off is often all but their sole refuge, indulges it in spades. There’s less of that in The Wind That Shakes The Barley, and (as the title suggests) more lyricism and scenic beauty. I’ve often found Loach’s films potentially a little melodramatic (if memory allows, there are an undue number of swaggering small-time gangsters in his oeuvre, although maybe that only shows my own ignorance of the milieu). Here he stages the violence quite exquisitely, making you feel the savagery of each eruption. He’s typically at ease with his actors too. The film as a whole seems a little compressed at times, collapsing some wrenching psychological evolutions into just a few scenes and exchanges, but of all directors, Loach may be the most immune to such criticisms. The current Cinematheque brochure quotes him as follows: “We can’t reveal the human condition if we don’t bleed with everyone else, (if) we don’t get angry with everyone else.” And a bleeding, angry film would surely never be a perfect or pristine one. You suspect Loach wouldn’t think of shedding a single one of his flaws, even if he acknowledged them as such.

By the way, the Cinematheque quote relates to a retrospective of his work that runs to mid-May. I can no longer make it to the Cinematheque, but if I could, the chance to see the likes of The Navigators, Sweet Sixteen, Raining Stones and Riff Raff again would be a real thrill. And unlike many directors, you don’t need to read up in advance, or to plan on seeing a number of them; if you’ve never seen any Loach films, then just pick one, and let the breath be knocked out of you.


If one doubts the ethicism of Loach’s approach, for all his faults, to such matters, one need only look at Antoine Fuqua’s Shooter, a chronicle of political wrongdoing in modern times. Mark Wahlberg is a former army sharpshooter, now living out in the wilds, who’s summoned back to action to supposedly help thwart a suspected assassination attempt on the President. Turns out the real target is the Ethiopian ambassador, shot just before he could denounce the latest overseas American atrocity, and Wahlberg is the designated Lee Harvey Oswald, meant to be framed, caught in the act and shot dead by a local cop. He survives of course and sets out to clear his name, helped by a young FBI agent who smells a rat. In the course of all this they polish off probably as many flunkies as the British laid waste to in their most brutal Irish decade.

I could not concentrate on the film at all – Fuqua’s handling is efficient, in that impersonal glossy mainstream style, and the film happily taps the spectre of Dick Cheney (closely embodied here by Ned Beatty) and generalized paranoia about conniving, amoral political institutions. It finds plenty to condemn, but implicitly communicates that the individual right to bear arms, and to use them with abandon, stretches pretty darn far, as long as you didn’t make the first move. The film’s opportunism is pretty hateful; it comes from that hardworking Hollywood skunk unit that you imagine constantly scans the headlines, thinking solely of how idealism and complexity can be converted into cheap thrills. The better it’s done of course, the more contemptible it is. Someone should bleed in opposition to this film.

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