Volume 19 Issue 44 | March 16 - 22, 2007


Directed by Ken Loach
Now at the IFC Center
323 Sixth Ave., at W. 3rd St.

Photo by Joss Barratt

Brothers Damian (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) take up arms in the fight for Irish independence in “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.”

Ken Loach’s love of the left

By Rania Richardson

Audiences were stunned when Ken Loach’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year, despite other popular contenders such as Pedro Almodóvar’s “Volver.” Political sentiment may have been behind the win, since the film about the nascent British occupation of Ireland echoes the current occupation of Iraq.

“Wind” follows two brothers, played by Cillian Murphy and Pádraic Delaney, who fight together in the 1920s Irish war of independence and then take opposite sides in the subsequent civil war.

Superlative acting by the handsome cast and rich cinematography in the verdant Cork countryside contrasts starkly with brutal scenes like fingernail-ripping torture by the British troops known as the Black and Tans. The historical tale feels ponderous at times, but ultimately the film is quite moving.

Seventy-year-old filmmaker Ken Loach has had a long career of socio-political films from “Kes” (1969) to “Riff Raff” (1990) to “My Name is Joe” (1998) to “Bread and Roses” (2000). But it was “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” that won Loach his first Palme d’Or.

“It is an extraordinary story of how a comparatively small number of farm workers, clerks, people doing ordinary jobs, plus one or two ex-soldiers from the British army from the first World War lead an independence struggle that kicked the most powerful empire in the world at that time out of the country,” said Loach, in town with star Murphy to talk up the film earlier this month.

“Then to follow that with a civil war in which the imperialist power divided the republic — consciously divided [the republic] — and then gave one side arms to kill the other side. It’s just an amazing story. And people in Britain hardly know it at all. For people in Ireland, another country just a few miles away, it’s very vivid to them, very present in their minds.”

Loach met screenwriter Paul Laverty while working on “Carla’s Song” (1997) in Nicaragua, where Laverty was a civil rights lawyer. The two became regular filmmaking partners soon after. “We see the world the same way. We laugh at the same things,” said the director. “We text each other daily on the Bush/Blair Axis and world disasters… and football scores.”

In the vein of the political slogan, “Think globally, act locally,” Loach tends to cast from the region where he is filming and includes non-actors for the sake of authenticity. Murphy was the ideal protagonist, born and raised in Cork, with an impressive array of characters under his belt including a psychopath in “Red Eye” (2005) and a transvestite in “Breakfast on Pluto” (2005).

“It was nice to do a film that I didn’t have to change my accent or appearance for, and it was also great to work with one of the greatest living filmmakers in my estimation,” said Murphy, accentuating his words with expressive hand gestures. The modest budget that Loach prefers means that personal trailers are out of the question, even for a rapidly rising star. “I stayed at home, in my old room,” said Murphy, who was amenable to the director’s spare approach.

The film was shot sequentially so that the actors experienced events as their character would. “It was liberating in every way. It was purely based on instinct and knowledge that Ken is a filmmaker who’s all about truth. It’s not about a self-indulgent performance or anything like that. It’s trying to get a really true and honest performance. I think in film acting can become very sort of heavy and unnecessarily intellectualized, and effectively it’s about being,” said Murphy.

Last year, when the film opened in the U.K., the right wing newspapers claimed that the film was anti-British. A headline in the Daily Mail read, “Why Does Ken Loach Loathe His Country So Much?” The controversy was good publicity and gave the director another opportunity to discuss Britain’s imperialism.

Loach is not surprised that parallels are being drawn between the film and current events, despite the fact that he developed the idea years before the war in Iraq. “History follows a pattern,” he said, explaining that the film could resonate at any time given the regularity of uprisings around the world.

“I got involved in the ’60s when I was already working in television. It was a very political decade. A whole number of things happened — the Vietnam War, the first Labour government for a long time in Britain, which was a major disappointment. That pushed a lot of people to take a more radical point of view. And the events in France in May ’68. It was quite sexy to be on the left then,” Loach said.

For some of us, it still is.

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