Ken Loach has always had a reputation as an "eat your spinach" filmmaker, more interested in illuminating social injustice than entertaining an audience. But as Loach devotees insist, his best films—with their semi-improvised shouting matches and vérité camerawork—can be as gripping as any thriller, with far more at stake. That's only halfway the case with Loach's 2006 Cannes Palme D'Or winner The Wind That Shakes The Barley. By far the most spinach-y film Loach has made lately, it takes place in '20s Ireland, and covers the early days of the IRA and its armed battles against brutal British occupying forces known as the Black And Tans. Cillian Murphy plays a medical student who gives up an internship in London in order to fight alongside his brother Padraic Delaney, but their family later gets torn apart when Delaney supports signing a treaty with the crown, while Murphy wants to hold out for self-rule.
Loach alternates between long scenes of people arguing in meeting rooms and shootouts in the rolling green hills. Typical for Loach, the bickering is more exciting than the bullets. There's a kind of dry tastefulness about The Wind That Shakes The Barley's historical recreations, even when Loach is staging rapes and executions. And the brother-against-brother plot feels spent from the start. As charismatic as Murphy's performance is, his character comes off like a walking, talking hypothetical. Loach and his longtime collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty, take a lot for granted, from the meaningless bullying of The Black And Tans to the outrage of the poor Irish farmers. There isn't much nuance to either side.
And yet, Loach and Laverty are still capable of creating moments startling in their naturalism—almost like a window into the past. When a republican courtroom erupts into a screaming match over landlord interest rates, or when a Catholic Mass ends in a group walkout after a pro-treaty homily, it becomes vividly clear how civil wars happen. In interviews, Loach has said that he was inspired to tell this story by Great Britain's role in the invasion of Iraq, and while none of that really resonates in the film itself, The Wind That Shakes The Barley does convey the meaning of one IRA leader's rouse-the-troops speech. "If they bring their savagery over here, we will meet it with a savagery of our own," he says—not angrily, not inspirationally, but matter-of-factly.