No-one should begrudge Ken Loach his Palme d'Or, but in truth - and despite its politics - The Wind That Shakes the Barley feels far less of a "Cannes film" than it does one of those nationalist epics that tends, whether in the form of a Braveheart or a Hero, the Korean film Brotherhood or its Thai equivalent Bang-Rajan, towards expensive commercial spectacle. The setting is Ireland as it was in the 1920s, under British occupation. Our nominal hero is Damien (Cillian Murphy), who ditches a promising career as a doctor, and tears up a one-way ticket to London, to enlist with the Irish Republican Army at a time when it was stepping up its resistance to the King's forces. The establishment of an Irish Free State is only months away, and with its arrival, the idealism of the Republican movement - an idealism Damien serves wholly to represent - will give way to the bloodshed and butchery that was, regrettably, to be the mark of the IRA in the decades to come.
As history, it's not subtle. The British, particularly in the early scenes, leap into the frame like Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition and begin kicking and punching anyone with Irish eyes, making it very easy for Damien to sign up for the cause. Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty have made life hard for themselves, not for the first time, in attempting to describe a period where the violence was retaliatory and disproportionate, literally out of hand: anybody with a strong attachment to their own fingernails will probably need to look away during one extended torture sequence. Yet arguably, this was no time or place for subtlety, or nuance. Loach's not dissimilar Land and Freedom stopped - in what now looks like its boldest move - for lengthy scenes of dialectics between its shootouts. Barley has but one comparable sequence, a courtroom squabble that hints at the bifurcating directions the IRA would take. Damien's brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney), the hardliner whose fingernails suffered so terribly, insists his followers reject the Republican leadership's rulings entirely, while the more moderate Don (Liam Cunningham) counsels they should work with the court.
Although the film conveys a vivid sense of how this one cell of resistance operated, there is elsewhere a nagging absence of wider political context; as someone who knew very little about this period going in, I think I took more away from Neil Jordan's Michael Collins, a film bound more to Hollywood casting agents than it was to the history books. Loach has spoken in interviews about his desire to draw a parallel between Ireland then and Iraq today, which is a noble aim, given the fine line between terrorism and freedom fighting. And yet this is something of a stretch when applied to the film, which - in its more abstract passages - scarcely looks to be about Ireland, let alone the Middle East. Damien barely registers as a hero; for the most part, he's one among many, a representative rather than an individual, curiously lacking in conventional motivation. It feels somewhat misleading of Loach to have cast an up-and-coming star like Murphy in what amounts to a marginal role.
Such choices reveal The Wind That Shakes the Barley to be a problematic rather than bad film; it has virtues with which to combat every last one of its flaws. Handsomely shot by Barry Ackroyd, it's easily Loach's best-looking picture, working up a carefully gradated mythic palette as its action encompasses yellowing prison cells, grey-green assembly halls, khaki brute uniforms and lush emerald forestry. And with every scene, even the more contentious ones, you're reminded again of the tremendous immediacy of Loach's staging: you really do feel as though you're right there in the middle of heated town hall meetings, in the cinema where silent newsreels first break the news of the Irish Free State, out in the fields where those deemed traitors are executed. A film of the heart rather than the head, it's very easy to get caught up with - which probably explains why it's gone on to become this director's biggest box-office hit in the UK and Ireland to date. And nobody should begrudge Loach that, either.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is available on DVD through Fox, and also on the BFI Player here.