The Politics of Beauty
Ireland Is the Star of Ken Loach's New Film
All rebellions have their chimurenga, an earlier rebellion that was brutally crushed by the ruling force. The dead from the first and failed rebellion return as ghosts, as stories, as songs that remind the next generation of freedom fighters of the length and depth of the struggle for liberty. In the world of a new film by the British director Ken Loach, the chimurenga for the rebellion in the 1920s is the Irish Rebellion of 1798. The dead of that defeat return as a song, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," the title of the movie. In the ballad, a man who is about to leave to war tells his sweetheart goodbye, but as he gives her final kisses, she is shot by the foreign enemy and dies in his arms. He buries her, and revenge makes his eyes as red as the blood that oozed from his lover's side.
The ballad is sung early in the film by an ancient woman at a wake for a young man who was brutally murdered by British troops. The crime the young man had committed against the British was being too Irish on two counts: one, playing an illegal game of hurling (an Irish passion), and, two, refusing to say his name in English (Irish pride). His life was the price exacted for this disobedience, and during his wake, the memory of the chimurenga, the first rebellion, is recalled by the ancient woman. She calls the ghosts from out of the past, calls them into the bleak cottage with the small window and the corpse, which as she sings becomes one with the "clay-cold corpse" in the ballad. The presence of the old and the new dead make it clear to the living that the time has arrived to meet force with force. There is no turning back. "If they bring their savagery over here, we will meet it with a savagery of our own," says a rebel later in the film.
The decision to fight for independence marks the starting point of Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley. The film then shows a young man, a doctor, played by Cillian Murphy, joining a unit of the IRA, gathering arms, training for guerrilla warfare, fighting in the pubs and streets, being captured, escaping from jail, killing traitors, sleeping in the woods, receiving blessings from a priest, and ambushing a British convoy. The movie shows the unity of the rural folk in this deadly struggle. It also shows what certain thinkers in the Fanon school of postcolonial theory call "the great betrayal," the moment when the leaders of the struggle betray the original ideas of the struggle and become an enemy of the very people they fought for. This point, the betrayal, is where the movie meets its tragic end. But none of these plot parts have anything to do with the reason why The Wind That Shakes the Barley is Loach's best movie.
The source of the film's greatness is its beauty. Surely there's no better place to fight an oppressor than the countryside of Ireland, with its green hills, gorgeous rocks, and fairytale cottages, with their thin threads of smoke rising to a moody sky. The clouds are always low, the air brisk, the rivers rapid, and the cheeks of the young ladies as fresh as a plum at the verge of ripeness. "I bore her to some mountain stream, and many's the summer blossom/I placed with branches soft and green about her gore-stained bosom." The ballad's merging of love with loss, youth with death corresponds to the movie's merging of vigorous men with violent deaths, serene valleys with brutal battles, the pleasures of a young woman's love with the pain of the interrogator's torture.
Yes, the movie is didactic. Which of Loach's films is not? They all take a firm position on the far left and attempt to speak up for those who have been exploited or brutalized by the natural enemy of the poor, the rich. If any criticism is to be leveled at Loach's new film, it's not on the grounds of his simplistic moralizing but on these other grounds: the film's stunning landscapes, handsome actors, and cozy interiors dominate the content. The political message is here reduced to the function of being nothing more than a stage for the real star: the exceptional beauty of Ireland itself.