dir: Ken Loach
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This is a beautifully made film about one of the most troublesome times in Irish history: the 1920s, being the start of the so-called Troubles. Made with a deft, sure hand by avowed socialist director Ken Loach, it personalises the conflict without ever degenerating into weak melodrama.
It reminds me most, especially in the bits where the IRA members are arguing, of Loach’s earlier film Land and Freedom about the Spanish Civil War. In this case the actors are professionals, and the story is more tightly scripted.
As the story begins, the Irish are chaffing under the yoke of the hated English. Their Black and Tan police bully the locals in shameful ways, not realising that there’s only so far you can push a downtrodden population before they eventually get jack of it and kill you where you sleep. The initial conflict is between the good ol’ Irish freedom fighters and the hated English. But the conflict eventually ends up being amongst themselves, to sad effect.
No one person shoulders the burden of carrying the film, as even though Cillian Murphy looks like the main protagonist, we’re not really watching the story through his eyes. He’s a participant in what is going on during The Troubles and their aftermath, but he’s one of many guys whose story is told. He and his brother Teddy (Padraic Delany) fight, at first, for the same goals.
What these guys, these fighters offer up is determination and humanity. When they have to kill someone for betraying the cause, they feel bad about it. When they see their own people being ground under the boot of the new leadership, they fight for the rights of the little people at cost to themselves. When they argue, they don’t argue dishonestly to gain power or out of greed; they argue at the intersection of pragmatism and the ideals for which they started the conflict in the first place.
In contrast, the Brits harass, murder and fight like a band of pirates (not the PC cleaned up Pirates of the Caribbean kind, but the ones that actually existed), with malice and sadism aforethought. When they are murdered by the IRA, we blame them for it because of their past actions. They were asking for it, after all. Just look at the way they were dressed.
We see the retaliation of the British, and we see the escalation of the conflict. It is not a stretch to see the equivalency Loach is broaching by depicting the efficient and effective tactics and results of a determined insurgency against an occupying aggressor: It’s impossible to avoid the Iraq parallel.
But making more of it than that would be unfair and inaccurate. The flick is deeply rooted in its time and place, and what it must have meant for the Irish people. The desperate fighting, the compromises these fighters had to make, the eventual scramble for power and siding with the Establishment in order to consolidate that power, is credible and depressing in its importance to telling the story.
Murphy, best known for playing Scarecrow in the last Batman flick and Jim in 28 Days Later, is a natural for a role like this, especially since his thick Oirish accent isn’t put on. It’s all natural, baby. He and the other fellas and lasses babble to each other in accents thicker than two pints of Guinness. They, or at least most of them, fight for the right to stand up as a free nation, not just out of hatred for the English, and as such they believe (especially Murphy’s character Damien) that better days could be ahead.
But when the conflict turns internecine, as in, the Irish start going after the Irish, what hope could possibly remain for a happy outcome for all concerned? The film sadly parallels the execution of the simple, unlucky ‘traitor’ to the cause early on, with the execution of one of the protagonists at film’s end, which is even sadder considering the people involved and what they’ve been through.
The crucial moment in the Troubles, which is another term for the Irish War of Independence, is where the feisty rebels have the old Empire on the ropes, and argue amongst themselves as to what the best way to set up the republic will be. Some are content with their gains, and fearful of greater reprisals from the British. They are the ones who set up the Irish Free State. The other fellas think they’ve just begun to fight, and have swapped only the colour of the oppressor’s flag and the accent of the person wielding the jackboot. Maybe it’s a truism of history that wars of independence are often followed immediately by civil wars, and if so then this story seems to exemplify that concept.
Brothers literally find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict, and it reaches the inevitable conclusion that occurs when someone ousts an oppressor and takes their place: there is no happily ever after for most of the people concerned. Bills need to get paid, kitty litter has to be emptied, threats to your power need to be made an example of and eliminated.
There is an incredible level of detail to the flick, but most of it doesn’t stand out noticeably so. The green of the landscape is overamped to almost make the colour of the lush green grasses, the moss-covered ancient thatched roofs of houses, as oppressive as any jackboot. This is the Emerald Isle after all, but the beautiful green possesses an almost melancholy quality, which complements the use of the song whose title matches the film’s title throughout.
It’s an accomplished and concerted effort on the part of Ken Loach and the other filmmakers to treat this story in such a mature and intelligent way. It uses history to tell a tale which doesn’t need to be altered or embellished too much in order to tell its simple truth: no war is easy, no war is just; those that gain power regardless of their righteousness by necessity use the same tactics as their enemies did before them.
7 times I probably could have benefited from some subtitles out of 10
“God help Ireland if your sort ever take over” – The Wind that Shakes the Barley