The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Ask an Irishman to hear a sad story and plant it. You're in for a trip. A country with quite a history -- the Great Potato Famine, the oppressive British rulers, so much more -- has added up to an almost lyrical, browbeaten genre of films. These are far from uplifting films, like 2006's The Wind That Shakes the Barley.

In 1920 County Cork, Ireland, Damien O'Donovan (Cillian Murphy) is ready to head to London to start practicing medicine. As he readies to leave though, the Black and Tans surprise Damien and a group of friends, meeting staunch resistance to the point where a friend is killed. He later sees the Black and Tans try to intimidate a train conductor, bullying everyone in a train station. Already a country full of unrest as the Irish Republican Army fights the British government, Damien joins his brother, Teddy (Padraic Delaney), who is the local commander of the IRA group. The resistance fighting though intensifies with each passing week though, and the casualties begin to mount on both sides. An idealist in his beliefs, even Damien is tested.

Call it a cop out -- again -- but I struggle with what to write about this movie. I've been using that excuse more and more of late, and I can't quite figure out why. For starters, I'm not well-versed in Irish history, especially the very turbulent times in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Near the middle of the film, a turning point is 1921's Anglo-Irish Treaty which provides quite a turning point for the IRA, some good, mostly bad. 'Barley' does a good job of laying out the history without turning the movie into a history lesson. We see the big picture and thankfully don't get bogged down in the historical details.

Like many other stories focusing on a resistance fighting against a ruling army, the strongest points from 'Barley' come from Damien's growing involvement with the IRA. Outnumbered, under-supplied and under constant threat of betrayals and being turned in, the Irish Republican Army faces tremendous odds in hopefully gaining freedom from Great Britain. We only get a sense of the big picture though because the focus is on how the big picture impacts Damien and Teddy's group. Damien becomes a respected leader and all that entails, including killing people he's known since childhood because they've betrayed the movement. We see a descent into an almost obsessive pursuit of making sure Ireland's freedom is obtained. The underdog -- in sports, in war, whatever -- is almost always more interesting here, and that's the case here.

Somewhat pigeon-holed as a creepy villain thanks to the Batman series, Red Eye, and In Time, Murphy takes advantage of getting a pretty straight heroic lead performance. A motivated resistance fighter who becomes fully committed to gaining his country freedom is a fastball down the middle for a talented actor, and Murphy doesn't disappoint. As his brother, Teddy, Delaney is another solid performance, similarly driven but not as fanatically driven in a more reasonable way. Liam Cunningham plays Dan, a member of Teddy's group who is a ferocious fighter but also an intellectual while Orla Fitzgerald plays Sinead, a young woman in love with Damien who is just as devoted to the cause as he is. There are plenty of other characters in and out of the story, but none leave much of an impression, if they're even identified by name.

That was my biggest complaint with 'Barley.' While the story, time period and history on a bigger scale is interesting, I never really felt connected to any of it. Murphy's performance is solid, as is Cunningham and Delaney, but other than that I felt no real tie to the characters. When one character is killed late in the movie, I didn't even know who it was because it felt like a rotating door of supporting players surrounding the fighting. In the end, I came away disappointed.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006): **/**** 

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