Miles on Movies

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

reviewed by R. Miles Mendenhall

Two Irish brothers are caught up in the final phase of the Irish revolution
against British rule in the whole of Ireland. The hated Black and Tans,
Irish recruits who enforce English colonial rule after the 1918 rebellion
are rampaging around the countryside. They beat a young man to death for
refusing to give his name in English; he’s willing to tell them in

There’s a reason one shouldn’t order a half stout, half ale or lager in an
Irish bar by calling it a Black and Tan, and that history is why.

The brothers, the older of whom is already a member of the Irish Republican
Army, the younger, a doctor just finished with his studies and headed for
London, and their friends, train as volunteers for the IRA. Then they start
carrying out guerilla actions against the British occupiers.

This is a war movie, shot with loving detail of tactics and their results.
Traitors must be dealt with, even when they’re childhood friends. The
Revolution is not a dinner party, as one of the most brutal revolutionaries
in history said. Daring do and close escapes ensue.

But the real story starts when after a truce, the brothers find themselves
on opposite sides in the deal offered by the English: Home Rule, but
Partition of the Northern Provinces and allegiance sworn to the English
Crown. It’s the best deal that can be had, and the consequence of refusal
would be total war on the Irish.

The tension between idealism and pragmatism is played out here in all its
tragic details.

Cillian Murphy (“28 Days Later” [See! Everything’s Connected!!!], “Breakfast
On Pluto”) plays the younger brother, a doctor and idealist. Ken Loach
(“Land and Freedom”, “My Name Is Joe”, “Bread and Roses”, “The Navigators”,
“Sweet Sixteen”) directs another of his brilliant explorations of life lived
intensely by ordinary people.

This is a great film about normal people swept up in the vortex of history.
As an older brother who has had his difficulties with his family and his
brother in particular, it hit me hard. It presents no easy answers, just a
loving portrayal of the tragedy that ensued from the best of goals and

Of all the films mentioned here, this and “Black Book” are by far the most
interesting, complex, well made and adult.

One thing that intrigued me is that many films about Ireland, set in
Ireland, celebrate the countryside as beautiful, green and pristine. The
landscape shown in “The Wind That Shakes The Barley” is barren and desolate.
Not the emerald paradise that is often portrayed. And given the subject,
that is entirely appropriate.

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