The decisive event, both in Paul Laverty's superb screenplay and in 1920s Ireland, is the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty by Michael Collins, a leader in the Irish Republican Army. Loach's film, which captured the Palme d'Or as the best picture at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, uses the relationship of two siblings -- one an aspiring doctor, the other a war-torn freedom fighter -- to serve as a political allegory for each conflict, detailing how the divisive truce ripped apart Ireland at the seams, turning countrymen into combatants and, ultimately, pitting brother against brother.
In 1920, Damien O'Donovan (Cillian Murphy), an Irish scholar, is preparing to leave Cork for London, where a prestigious medical internship awaits. But he is deterred by two early acts of violence: the slaying of a minor in his village and the savage beating of a train operator on his path out of town. Both come at the hands of the Black and Tans, a brutal paramilitary force enlisted by British to quell the Irish uprising. In lieu of the Hippocratic Oath, Damien pledges allegiance to the IRA, then an upstart group of untrained guerrillas.
Focusing on Damien's acclimation to the profession of soldier, the film's first act is a deftly staged sequence of tactical sessions, harrowing ambushes and narrow escapes. When his small flying column, led by elder brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney), learns of a double-cross by a local dignitary, the result is a painful hillside execution that ranks among the picture's most lasting images. ("I studied anatomy for five years," confesses Damien, "and I have to shoot this man in the head ... I hope this Ireland we're fighting for is worth it.")
Damien's loss of innocence paves the way for Barley's conflicted latter half, as the treaty for which the Irish band had been fighting ends up as its undoing. The political persuasions of Damien and Teddy are revealed through a series of civic meetings to be at diametric odds. It's not quite as rousing as the rebellious exposition, nor as lucid, but the symmetry is chilling: Safe houses raided by the British at the film's beginning are subsequently pillaged by the Irish at its end. "Orders from the government of the Free State," proclaims one soldier, oblivious to the thick irony.
Loach and Laverty excel at this type of intellectual discourse -- both have deep roots in social commentary, and it shows. Loach, who is British, seems particularly restrained here, in spite of the controversy caused by the sensitive subject matter. (Several U.K. critics lambasted the film before ever seeing it.) His direction, rooted in the vrit style, paints a naturalistic portrait of Ireland and its people: Frequent shots are framed in hues of verdant green or oppressive black, while the cast, primarily composed of unknown locals, reflects the salty character of Irish commoners with often humorous levity.
Barley's lone star is Murphy, an actor best known for his comical, villainous roles in blockbusters like Red Eye and Batman Begins. But his work here betrays those shallow shockers. Showing that his fine turn in 2003's Girl With a Pearl Earring was no fluke, Murphy, a native of Cork, imbues Loach's moral compass with indigenous soul. Delaney, a newcomer who resembles the actor Peter Sarsgaard to no small degree, is equally impressive as the compromising Teddy.
It's telling that the most important scene in The Wind that Shakes the Barley involves neither lead player. Instead, in fine republican fashion, the pivotal point is a legal dispute between two anonymous characters. The first is a borrower who has defaulted on a loan and the second is her irate financier, an important military supplier demanding exorbitant interest. After the sympathetic court rules in favor of the former, a complex argument between two factions arises: whose interests to protect? Those of a person or those of the people?
When Teddy poses a version of the same question near the film's tragic denouement, Damien's answer resonates with relevance, both for 20th Century Ireland and 21st Century America: "This is not the will of the people. This is the fear of the people."