(This piece was first published under the title ‘The Wind That Shakes The Critics’ in in the picture 55 in Spring 2007.)
The Wind That Shakes the Barley has received a very hostile reaction from right-wing political commentators in British newspapers, being called a “poisonously anti-British corruption of the history of the war of Irish independence” (Tim Luckhurst in The Times) or a “portrayal of the British as sadists and the Irish as romantic, idealistic resistance fighters who take to violence only because there is no other self-respecting course” (Ruth Dudley Edwards in the Daily Mail).
However, the reaction from film critics – as opposed to political commentators (some of whom, like Simon Heffer, attacked the film before even seeing it) – has been generally extremely positive. The right-wing Daily Telegraph’s film critic described it as a “brave, gripping drama” and said that Loach was “part of a noble and very English tradition of dissent”. The film critic of The Times said that the film showed Loach “at his creative and inflammatory best”. (www.wikepedia.org).
The response summarised above is not unusual for a film directed by Ken Loach. His 1966 television film, Cathy Come Home, was followed by one of the earliest television ‘balancing’ programmes. His films about organised labour, Questions of Leadership (1983) and Which Side Are You On? (1984), were effectively banned. When the subject was Ireland, as in Hidden Agenda (1990) on the ‘shoot to kill’ policy, the campaign became almost hysterical. And so the BBC series, Days of Hope (1975) which included labour and Ireland, provoked leaders in both The Times and the Daily Telegraph.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley (TWTSTB) compounds its sympathy for Irish republicanism by drawing parallels:
“I think what happened in Ireland is such a classic story of a fight for independence, to establish a democratic mandate and to resist an occupying army. Yet it was also a fight for a country with a new social structure. The British army in Ireland during 1920-21 did what armies of occupation do the world over – adopt a racist attitude towards the people they are attacking and occupying. They destroy people’s houses, engage in acts of brutality and generally oppress the people – and in Iraq that’s exactly what the British army is doing.” (Loach interview on www.socialistworker.co.uk).
The Irish dimension
Few of the reviews have actually explored these parallels in detail, focusing mainly on the Irish dimension. Quite often such comment include odd asides. Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian: “To be fair, there is surely a bigger market for anti-Brit diatribes across the Channel . . .” And Edward Lawrenson in Sight & Sound comments re the anti-Treaty hero “is his implication that any deviation from Damien’s principles is perfidy and his distaste for the very idea of compromise appropriate in these post-Good Friday Agreement times?” Lawrenson goes on to make a point common to a number of reviewers: “This coarsening of Loach’s artistry is most evident in the director’s depiction of the English and Scottish soldiers as either pantomime toffs or brutish squaddies.” He believes that Loach is using stereotypes, a technique not peculiar to this director.
In the same issue of Sight & Sound there is a review of United 93 (US 2006). This is also a historical reconstruction on film. The characterisation of the hijackers gets no mention in that review. What the film offers is a stereotypical group who “pray, read the Koran, bow to Mecca, perform ablutions, and hug goodbye – the rites of religious cleansing before a holy war.” (Cineaste, Fall 2006). Moreover, the only other foreign accent in this film belongs to the one dissenting voice among the passengers. It would seem that stereotypes are at least partly in the mind of the beholder.
Form and Style
What receives less attention than the political standpoint of the film is its form and style. As Loach remarked film “is absolutely a group activity”. Some sense of the production team and their use of film techniques is presented in a Channel Four documentary Carry on Ken. The title reflects Ken Loach’s liking for the oft-reviled ‘Carry On’ films. The programme includes examples of the improvisation techniques of actors, and points out the way that a long lens is used.
One comment on the staging is by Lawrenson who refers to the farmhouse where several acts of violence by the British occur. He comments: “It comes across on the screen as an implausible and heavy-handed bit of symbolism.” This is to ignore the way that place can function to enrich stories. This is another aspect of the film accorded little attention, in that it builds on the iconography and generic elements of the cycle of films dealing with Irish Republicanism. The majority of such films have tended to stereotype the liberation fighters. Typical are two portrayals, James Cagney in Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) and Miranda Richardson in The Crying Game (1992). Both are psychotic killers. More sympathetic films romanticise the republicans, as doomed victim in Odd Man Out (now on re-release) or as heroic leader in Michael Collins (1996). In neither case is there much involvement with the politics of the Republican movement, or of the occupying power, Britain.
This is exactly what TWTSTB does do. And it does so by tapping into Irish academic and popular traditions of Republicanism. So the film not only relied on Irish locations and casting, but the narrative features actual figures and events from the period. It also uses the iconography of Irish films. Little is seen of these in the UK but they go back to the early years of the Irish Free State. Channel Four screened The Dawn (1936) in the 1990s. This film centres on two brothers with different responses to the war, and it features scenes of marching volunteers and ambushes of the Black and Tans. But it does not address the post-Treaty Civil war.
Despite or because of all the publicity, good and bad, TWTSTB has done very well – for a Loach film (£3.7 million and still on release). Initially, the UK release was planned to be only thirty prints, but with 300 touted for France, the UK figure was upped to 105. On the first weekend the film posted £390,000, “nearly three times that of his previous biggest opening Sweet Sixteen” (an 18 rather than a 15 Certificate film). ‘The Numbers’ column in Sight & Sound went on to point out that: “The Irish territories accounted for 73% of the . . . box office total.” The Irish territories apparently include the North and the South; both lumped in with the UK. This is a poetic confirmation of the argument put by Dan (Liam Cunningham) against the Treaty, “England would still rule you”. (In France the film has made over £3 million.)
Two aspects of the critical responses strike me especially in relation to TWTSTB. Whilst critics do not claim to be objective, there is a sense in which they claim to be judging films on identified technical and aesthetic standards. Yet the revealing asides in so many reviews indicate that value judgments are often just as important. As with Loach himself, ‘politics inform your aesthetics.’ British critics also tend to dislike didactic cinema, ‘film with a message.’ Jeffries comments: “but there is a deeper problem: we are always sure whose side Loach is on and the dramatic journeys he take us on are ultimately not engaging because we know where they are headed.” The reviewer’s comments on United 93’s message reckons that it: “terrifyingly conveys the nature of the threat facing the world today and poignantly conveys onscreen the decision by a few brave individuals to fight back”. Both films clearly embrace and present a set of value judgements about the world of their story. The differing comments are revealing.
Ken Loach was quoted on one occasion: “I’ve spent as much time defending my films as I have making them.” Does he mind that much? Just because his films are not mere entertainment but social and political interventions, they spark discussion and debate. I think it is highly likely that the arguments in the review columns are endlessly repeated and developed long after audiences have left the cinemas.
Sight & Sound reviews of the two films are July 2006. ‘The Numbers’ is August 2006.
Carry on Ken, A Feasible Film for Channel Four tx More 4 on 17 June 2006.
Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons and John Hill (1987) Cinema and Ireland, Routledge