The Things They Carried
The title of Ken Loach's latest movie, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, could make you think he'd shot a landscape film; and so he did, in a sense, since the most common image in the picture is a spacious view of the rolling green Irish countryside around Cork, with armed men sneaking through its folds. The setting is rural, except for brief forays into town. The period is 1920-22: years when the Irish Republican Army fought against British forces and then against its former comrades, who had accepted the compromise of the Irish Free State.
This being a Loach film, written by his frequent collaborator Paul Laverty, you can expect real historical debate from it, if not a full historical synopsis. When the treaty of 1921 is signed with Britain and the characters must decide if they will honor its terms, they do so in a bristling, omnidirectional scene that touches on much more than the fate of Ulster. Shut inside a small, bare room, hungry men dressed in vests and cloth caps argue about endemic poverty and entrenched property rights, Republican principle and imperialist realpolitik, and they do it with everything they've got, since they've already staked their lives. Loach has directed a scene like this before, in his Spanish Civil War drama Land and Freedom; and here, as in that picture, the debate becomes the movie's improbable high point, despite the surrounding raids and ambushes.
But even during this talky climax, The Wind That Shakes the Barley has the rhythm peculiar to landscape films. The seasons go through their cycle; violence recurs (sometimes in exactly the place where you saw it before); and, in the debate scene, a line of reasoning you'd heard early in the film comes back again, this time used against the man who had first advanced it.
He is Damien O'Donovan (Cillian Murphy), a medical student who had intended to turn his back on the Republican cause and go to London for his internship, except that he couldn't leave on the train, the British troops having beaten the engineer senseless. In a more conventional narrative, this assault at the train station would have shaken Damien out of his complacency and turned him into a fighter. The British occupation would then have figured in the movie as a mere plot contrivance, existing to advance a character. In Loach's film, though, the station incident is already the second brutality that Damien has witnessed, without his being central to either scene. He is a protagonist who lives in the middle distance, in shots usually populated by half a dozen other characters; and for all his intelligence, he's as likely as any of us to be blown about by circumstance.
In outline his story is simple, and awful too. Damien joins a band of Republicans (having seen no alternative) and so is drawn into actions that may be necessary but tear at his soul. "I studied anatomy for five years, to shoot a man in the head. I hope this Ireland we're fightin' for is worth it." Then, to make good on the terrible things he's done, he goes on fighting even after his political leaders tell him to lay down his weapons. Although his war brings Damien the friendship of a good comrade (Liam Cunningham) and the love of young Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald), he ultimately loses both.
In fact, he loses everything. And Loach persuades you that Damien was right.
You see how The Wind That Shakes the Barley might have oppressed you. Or it might have made you groan at melodramatic complications, since the milieu is tiny and most of its characters have known one another forever. (You sense their intimacy in every scene, even though the back stories are scrupulously unrecounted.) That's why the landscape feels so important. The film needs an element that's lovely, abiding and indifferent to lend it a higher sort of fatalism. The merely human kind is represented by a bonneted grandmother who won't leave her native cottage even after the British have burned it. "I'll clean the chicken coop," she insists, prompting Sinead (and perhaps you) to wail, "I don't want to end up like her! I want to have somethin' in my life!"
The film also needs an actor who can seem as natural and open as the landscape. So it has Murphy--a brilliant performer, but indelibly odd. In long shot, with his big round head overhanging a skinny frame, he seems like the live-world equivalent of Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas. In close-up (which Loach avoids), he arrests you with his icy eyes, carved cheeks and pushed-out baby lips. Just through his physical presence, Murphy will stand out in any role he's given: a mad psychiatrist in Batman Begins, a hit man in Red Eye, a heroic transvestite in Breakfast on Pluto. But here, despite appearing in almost every scene, he somehow blends in with the surroundings. Murphy leads the cast while being completely one with it. He plays Damien to the core without indulging in a single moment of acting. I think he's beyond praise.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley won the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes festival, to the puzzlement of those who prefer a bolder, more outgoing style of cinema. I'm one of them, sometimes. But the grain of the title puts me in mind of everything that nourishes you in the film: its frankness, probity, care and intelligence, offered not just in crumbs but as a whole loaf. I wish this could be our daily bread.
* * *
Let me get the bad news out of the way. There are scenes in Mira Nair's The Namesake--just a few--that are written, played and directed as lumpishly as a telenovela. The film's overall rhythm lurches rather than flows; and I have no idea, none, of the meaning of the central conceit. The main character, a young American man of Bengali background, must choose whether to accept the awkward name he was given at birth: Gogol, as in Nikolai. In the source novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, the full resonance of this name must surely emerge; but I haven't gotten around to reading the book, and I don't think Nair should punish me for it.
Now the good news. There are weddings, parties and a funeral in the movie. Nair knows exactly what to do with these. As a director, she has the instincts of a great hostess--which I mean as high praise. Frederick Elmes shot the picture. You've never seen colors that are so bright and so soft at the same time. The narrative (apart from the Gogol business) is perfectly clear about its central concerns: immigration, acculturation, in-betweenness. These are familiar issues, but with her Indian subject matter Nair makes them moving in fresh ways. Best of all, the main characters are played by Irrfan Khan as the sweet, gentle father; Tabu as the game but dislocated mother; and the irrepressible Kal Penn as Gogol. You will be happy to spend two hours in such good company.