Dear Wind That Shakes the Barley,
It is true that I might not be the most unbiased judge of your character. You’re an Irish tale, and me being proudly half-Irish that gives you a bit of an edge. But no one ever got by in this world on their accent alone, and so it pleased me as I settled in to watch you that you had so much more to offer than just rolling green hills, foreign accents and the game of hurling.
Still, one of the things which attracts me to you so heartily is that you are an Irish movie, through and through. You feature all of the things we romantics think of when we think of the Emerald Isle – old men in pubs, farmers in their fields, and young men engaged in a bloody, soul-rending struggle against an oppressive occupying army.
You are a movie that celebrates and dissects the most well know and yet little understood aspect of your country’s modern history, the battle between the Irish resistance and the British black and tans, and for that alone you deserve credit. And though this stark, almost binary opposition could be easily parlayed into a lazy tale of good versus evil, you are so much more nuanced than that.
You portray those freedom fighters as young, scared men beaten into a life otherwise unthinkable to them. Their subtle transformation from boys to boys with guns is shown with compassion and distance.
Yet you have the good sense to show a reality that I imagine is truer than similar Hollywood fare like Red Dawn would allow of their guerilla fighters – these boys never become soldiers out there in the meadows and fields. A scared young man with a gun in his hand is, at heart, still a scared young man.
Never do you seek to create a false sense of bravado or heroism. Each small, roadside victory over the British seems to come as a shock to the Irish soldiers. Yet the greater shock, both for those characters and for the audience, comes at the end of the war against the British.
Whereas most films would be happy to simply end with the scrappy underdogs winning a victory over the tyrant army that held them down, you have the courage to go both in depth into the cost of victory and the struggle to hold on to it.
Here, I think, is where your characters stories also find their most honest beats. Teddy, the idealist who first joined the IRA and shamed his younger brother Damien into doing the same, accepts the need to compromise with the British as part of a new campaign of diplomacy. To him, ruling one’s self while pledging allegiance to the Crown is a far sight better than allowing the British to be proven right in their assumption that the Irish could never handle self-rule. He even goes so far as to join the new Irish Free State army.
Damien, though, attaches himself more readily to the socialist ideals pushed by the IRA, claiming he will never swear an oath to the British. This puts him opposite his brother, and their ideological struggle serves as a microcosm for the greater violence of the civil war that follows between the Free Staters and the IRA.
Many complaints could be leveled against you, Wind That Shakes the Barley. You are, perhaps, a bit too long. You have a brothers-turned-against-one-another third act that feels a bit too tidy and on-the-nose.
You also have a tendency to get bogged down by scenes of impassioned men and women debating one another in small rooms. Yet these things are small concessions to make in the service of a story that heartrending in its depiction of a nation at war with itself as much as the British, and the toll is takes on two brothers, neither of whom is willing to abandon his dream of a perfect Ireland.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day,
Brian J. Roan