Audiences can choose from a smorgasbord of moral extremes in Atlanta theaters this spring. On the one hand, there is the violence for sport of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's double feature, Grindhouse, with its giddy, crowd-pleasing spectacle of heads blown from spinal columns like dandelion fluff, and zombies that pop and spew with the vigor of overfilled water balloons.
And on the other end of the spectrum, there is The Wind That Shakes the Barley, British director Ken Loach's 2006 Cannes Palme d'Or winner about the bloody, morally reprehensible events surrounding the Irish struggle for independence.
"There is often a hypocrisy going on in war films, where they claim to be anti-war, but then a large part of the entertainment involves all the explosions and the blood," Loach has said in publicizing his film.
Defying the cultural norm where violence has become entertainment, Loach (Bread and Roses, Land and Freedom) has created a war film where killing weighs heavily on its characters' hearts. Loach's historical drama opens in 1920 on a vibrant green Irish hillside where a group of men play a game of hurling amid grazing sheep. But to the Black and Tans, the armed British police force that occupies Ireland, that hurling game signals the possibility of political talk and organized resistance. After the game, a group of the thuggish British enforcers descends on the men, killing one of them.
Such anti-Irish violence convinces the bright and ambitious Damien (Cillian Murphy) to forsake his future as a doctor and devote himself to the cause of Irish independence. Instead of taking a train bound for London, he joins his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) and his fellow villagers in an Irish Republican Army guerrilla resistance to the British occupation.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is about the mechanics of Irish history. It is also about politics in a larger sense and the kind of moral choices it demands.
Murphy, who has run from zombies in 28 Days Later and dressed up as a remarkably pretty girl in Breakfast on Pluto, again exhibits his range as a man wrestling with the day-to-day consequences of his beliefs. In some ways, Murphy seems a natural choice to play Damien; he has the delicate, baby-doll prettiness that the human mind tends to believe reflects moral virtue. But that comeliness is also an unusual quality in the kind of gritty people's rebel more often played by pumped-up macho men such as Mel Gibson in Braveheart or Liam Neeson in Rob Roy. Murphy is a rebel of an entirely different order: brave and devoted to his cause but also heartsick over the killing that the battle for Irish independence seems to demand.
Loach has long been fascinated by how politics and social policies play out in individual lives. As a character notes in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, "It's easy to know what you're against. Quite another to know what you are for."
Opposing the oppressive British occupiers is a no-brainer. But forging a new government and economic system fundamentally different from the British model proves a debilitating challenge that splits Ireland into warring factions when the IRA signs the peace treaty with England. The Anglo-Irish Treaty divides the country between the diehard Republicans like Damien and the treaty's supporters like Teddy. Those divided brothers are perhaps the most glaringly conventional element in Paul Laverty's otherwise thoughtful script.
Loach has always somehow united narrative cinema with a documentarian realism. He is naturally drawn to small details that illuminate grand historical changes, such as the starving Irish child (whom Damien helps) who represents the daily misery of the Irish people.
Far from white-knuckle political drama, The Wind That Shakes the Barley instead is thoughtful human-scale history whose progressive stance never comes by sacrificing the struggles of real people. The film represents Loach's desire to remake history but also a formal desire to alter the way war and violence are treated onscreen.
There is little sensation in the bloodshed of The Wind That Shakes the Barley. But there is much to be learned about the way people adapt to or resist historical change.