Criterion Prediction #183: The Wind That Shakes the Barley, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Wind that Shakes the Barley
Director: Ken Loach
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Orla Fitzgerald, Padraic Delaney, Liam Cunningham, Gerard Kearney
Synopsis: After enduring far too many atrocities from English occupation, young doctor Damien O’Donovan (Murphy) joins the Irish Republican Army with his brother Teddy in their fight for freedom.
Critique: While he wears his social and political sympathies on his sleeve, writer/director Ken Loach is equally committed to his filmmaking as he is social pragmatism; and, luckily for fans of his work one feeds into the other. Loach’s movies vary in tone and style, but in terms of theme they seldom change; Loach is often referred to as a “political” filmmaker. While politics are certainly a component of his work, his movies focus on people above all, and his warmth plays in areas where it’s most needed. That balance is what makes his films economically enduring. And his method of understated humanism and grating realism makes The Wind that Shakes the Barley an essential effort. His direction gives this film a distinction amid the many films about the Troubles – In the Name of the Father, Michael Collins, and Shadow Dancer all have a sheen of artifice. Despite their exploration of provisional rebellion, miscarried justice, or guerrilla warfare Jim Sheridan, Neil Jordan and James Marsh bring a cinematic quality to their work, despite being committed, talented filmmakers they lack the incendiary gravitas embodied by Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley.
Loach regularly revisits themes of socialized humanism. It’s most notable in his BBC teleplays Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home (both sent the press into a frenzy given his frank exploration of abortion and homelessness), but the through line starts with his four-installment series Days of Hope, a chronicle of the first world war to the general strikes. Here his naturalism and period atmosphere relay into a malleable understated epic and his cinematic chops grew stronger with his seriocomic proletariat dramas, Raining Stones, Sweet Sixteen, and was elaborated on with his paramilitary stories, Carla’s Song, Land and Freedom; given his track record The Wind that Shakes the Barley is the quintessential Ken Loach film. The film is an outright indictment of British colonialism, and for good reason; it’s always been a strange criticism levied on Loach’s work, especially in the case of The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Is it a surprise that Loach, who’s made a career criticizing the British establishment, takes an explicitly negative approach chronicling the fight against their occupation of Ireland?
The Wind that Shakes the Barley has more than some bark to it and casually eschews sensationalism, combat, and councils play with calibrated dramatic execution while winnowing a relatable narrative.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Ken Loach’s life on home video is currently a bit complicated. Riff Raff, Raining Stones, Fatherland, and Carla’s Song, fall into the Twilight Time rotation, Hidden Agenda lands in Kino Lorber land, and of course Kes and I, Daniel Blake (as well as Cathy Come Home as a bonus feature) are released through Criterion. Of all of Loach’s films, The Wind that Shakes the Barley is one of the most popular and given its tenure on the now-defunct FIlmstruck channel it could fall into Criterion’s orbit.