A few weeks ago, 79-year-old British director Ken Loach won the top prize, the coveted Palme D’Or, at the Cannes Film Festival. For those who religiously follow the fest year to year, the strongest sensation provoked by this decision was probably déjà vu. It’s not just that Loach, one of the U.K.’s most celebrated and socially conscious filmmakers, has won this award before, and now joins an esteemed group of Palme two-timers that includes Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Haneke, and those reliably excellent Dardenne brothers (who, in a bit of Cannes-catnip synergy, have co-produced many of Loach’s recent films through their production company Les Films Du Fleuve). No, it’s also that Loach’s victory at this year’s Cannes, where his Social Services polemic I, Daniel Blake won the Palme, is an eerie echo of the victory he achieved at the fest 10 years earlier.
In 2016, as in 2006, the big winner screened early in the festival, to positive-but-not-ecstatic reviews. Again, the Jury Prize (essentially third place) went to fellow Brit filmmaker Andrea Arnold. And again, Loach’s picture triumphed over movies by Bruno Dumont, Nicole Garcia, and perennial Cannes bridesmaid Pedro Almodóvar, who more than once has been called the assumed favorite for the Palme, only to see the award snatched away in a shocking upset. Plenty has already been written about what the unexpected win for I, Daniel Blake says about Cannes, including the fact that critics and artists often have very different taste in movies, as well as that political motive often trumps artistic innovation in the eyes of those handing out the awards. But what it says most simply is that history tends to repeat itself.
That’s actually one of the major points of The Wind That Shakes The Barley, the aforementioned Palme winner of 2006. The film takes a fictionalized, ground-level view of the Irish War Of Independence, in which the Irish Republican Army attempted, from 1919 until 1921, to drive British security forces out of the country, largely through organized campaigns of violence. For Loach, though, that conflict is also a proxy for a couple of then-contemporary occupations, including the highly unpopular and ongoing war in Iraq. (“Maybe if we tell the truth about the past, maybe we tell the truth about the present,” he said while accepting his award.) Such timeliness probably played some part in the reportedly unanimous decision made by director Wong Kar-Wai and his fellow Cannes jurors, who selected Barley over presumptive frontrunners (and fellow prizewinners) like Almodóvar’s rapturously received Volver and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s more divisive Babel.
Legacy couldn’t have hurt either. By 2006, Loach had become not just one of Britain’s most acclaimed and prolific filmmakers, but practically an institution—a one-man issue-film factory, releasing odes to the marginalized (miners, migrant workers, labor leaders, the homeless, working-class people of all walks) at a steady clip for more than 40 years. Proof of his esteem arrived a few years before Cannes verified it, when the British Film Institute voted Kes (1969), his coming-of-age masterpiece, the seventh best British film of all time. Barley marked his eighth appearance in competition at the fest, meaning that to anyone keeping score on the intersection of Cannes and the canon, Loach wasn’t due. He was overdue.
Which is not to imply that a vote for The Wind That Shakes The Barley was inarguably just a vote for its byline. There’s plenty to appreciate about this well-told historical drama, set against the verdant green of war-torn Ireland. At heart, the film’s a vision of a revolution in microcosm, telling an origin story of the IRA through the efforts of two makeshift lieutenants, Cork brothers Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) and Damien (Cillian Murphy). As the film begins, Churchill’s “Black And Tan” cavalry, recruited to help the Royal Irish Constabulary beat back the IRA opposition, has cut a swath of destruction across the Irish countryside. Unable to abide the continual abuse of civilians, budding doctor Damien back-burners his career in medicine to join Teddy’s resistance movement.
Loach has never been shy about courting controversy, and it was undeniably bold to make a movie sympathetic to the IRA, a group that’s often, even widely decried as a terrorist cell. Plenty of British journalists denounced the film as vile propaganda, often sight unseen, with The Times going as far as comparing Loach to Leni Riefenstahl, for supposedly distorting history and romanticizing armed insurgents. (Perform the mental leap to the war Barley is supposedly, allegorically evoking, and the expression of sympathy becomes even more daring.) Admittedly—and so long as we’re on the subject of Riefenstahl—Loach makes little attempt to humanize the British soldiers, who come across as stormtroopers wrapped in a different flag. The film’s inciting incident is a raid on a farmhouse that ends with the spilled blood of an innocent teenager. The scene squares with the stained historical record of the Black And Tan troops, whose reign of terror is well-documented. But it’s also clearly designed to establish a hiss-worthy opponent worth dying to defeat.
Drawing lines in the sand is one of Loach’s less-admirable habits. Often a polemicist first and a storyteller second, he’s not above dividing the world into opposing camps, with the noble little guys on one side and their faceless, merciless oppressors on the other. Such a black-and-white approach aligns well with the political aspirations of his films—it’s us versus them, etc.—but it doesn’t always make for compelling drama. I can’t speak to I, Daniel Blake (though our man on the scene claims it’s a stacked deck), but Loach’s last Cannes competitor, Jimmy’s Hall, was guilty as sin of this righteous unbalance—it was basically a low-key Irish Footloose, pitting a real-life folk hero against the dogmatic local authority figures who ran his dance-loving ass straight out of town.
The Wind That Shakes The Barley seems for a stretch to adopt a similarly partisan strategy, building as it does to a nasty British commander trying to pry the location of stolen weapons from an imprisoned Teddy by ripping off his fingernails—a scene that goes from queasy to rousing when the rest of the boys sing Irish protest music through the wall in solidarity. But Barley sidesteps one-sided hagiography through the design of its narrative: This is not just the story of the Irish War Of Independence, but also the civil war that followed—a conflict between different factions of the IRA, which fractured over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. What Loach is after, he belatedly reveals, is a picture of how the group began to permanently splinter down ideological lines, and the director (working with regular screenwriter Paul Laverty) dramatizes this history lesson by putting Teddy and Damien on opposite sides of the schism. Had the more knee-jerk detractors actually watched the film, they’d have seen the ambivalence that complicates this superficially pro-IRA project. It’s about the birth and muddying of a movement.
If the kinetic nature of combat cinema gives Loach’s style a refreshing shot of adrenaline (and some real stakes), Barley returns the favor by investing the war movie with an intellectual dimension: This is a film more about why they fought than how. The most exciting scene might be the one where everyone gathers in a room to debate the pros and cons of the recently signed treaty, with one half arguing that accepting the imperfect terms of the ceasefire will save countless lives and rid the country of marauding foreign soldiers, while the other half rejects an arrangement that grants Ireland a phony independence, keeping it under the thumb of the British Empire. By contrast, the movie’s actual battle scenes are more functional than gripping, with Loach cutting back and forth across the line of fire. (For more visceral depictions of this prolonged struggle, look to the trenches-of-the-Troubles thriller ’71, set about half a century later.)
This is, ultimately, a war film less concerned with plopping viewers down on the front-lines than putting them in the thick of debate and asking them to sort through the moral, political, and strategic value of armed resistance. It’s a little obvious, perhaps, to reduce a civil war to “brother against brother,” and Damien’s romance with a long-suffering neighbor (Orla Fitzgerald) feels like a placeholder, vague where the rest of the film is specific. But The Wind That Shakes The Barley is smart to give its historical material a human component. Two mirrored execution scenes, each accompanied by the delivery of the news (one described, the other depicted) to a survivor, powerfully establish the unthinkable sacrifices required of those who take up arms. And Delaney and Murphy give their characters shade, making a schematic relationship feel considerably less so. (For a director who regularly privileges message over drama, Loach is almost always great with his actors, both trained and untrained.)
In the context of a career, The Wind That Shakes The Barley looks like an august-period highlight—not half as radical as its subject matter, and no patch on the director’s finest, but a handsome, engrossing period piece nonetheless. In the context of Cannes, its reputation seems to have faded; the film is sometimes remembered today as a curious call on the part of the jury, the French-festival equivalent of handing Al Pacino an Oscar for Scent Of A Woman. But if Loach’s first Palme was intended as some kind of career-achievement award, Wong and his jury didn’t bestow it upon an embarrassing or fundamentally unworthy film. Barley may lack the raw power of Loach’s early (and still best) work, but the inherent urgency of the subject matter—a war for territory and autonomy, of bullets and ideas—sets the movie apart from his more stiffly tasteful latter-day polemics. Whether I, Daniel Blake fits that bill is a matter of opinion this particular writer can’t address yet. But Loach, like history, does have a habit of repeating himself.
Did it deserve to win? Poor Pedro Almodóvar. Every time Spain’s most celebrated director gets in reach of the Palme, some surprise contender swoops in to snatch it away. Volver was heavily favored to win in 2006 and it probably should have—this gorgeously filmed, impeccably acted melodrama is one of the filmmakers’ finest. ’06 was not an exceptional year for the festival, though there’s maybe a more interesting Palme winner in several other options: Pedro Costa’s singular, demanding Colossal Youth; Guillermo Del Toro’s most prestige fantasia, Pan’s Labyrinth; and one of three American films in competition, Sofia Coppola’s dazzling bacchanal of privileged youth Marie Antoinette, which got viciously booed by French critics at its premiere. (The other American films, by the way, were Fast Food Nation, by director Richard Linklater, whose A Scanner Darkly competed “next door” in Un Certain Regard, and Richard Kelly’s garbage-fire epic Southland Tales, which has perhaps inevitably accrued a vocal cult fanbase since earning some catastrophic—and for my money, deserved—pans on the Croisette.)
Next up: Black Orpheus, which was originally planned for this month, until Loach won his second Palme.