Director Ken Loach ("Sweet Sixteen") has made a long career far from the glow of Hollywood, turning in small portraits of working-class people from his native England. "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," about the early days of the Irish Republican Army, is a big movie for him, with an even bigger star in Cillian Murphy, who's inches away from becoming a bona-fide A-list celebrity.
It's satisfying to find that neither the scope of film nor the size of star has altered Loach's quiet, low-key and sympathetic approach to moviemaking. This epic of a bitter struggle for independence has few close-ups, no soaring soundtrack and special effects D.W. Griffith could have handled. Yet it's the most memorable movie of 2006, with an individual style and power that belie its humble surface.
Murphy stars as one of the two O'Donovan brothers central to this based-on-real-events story, which follows the murderous back-and-forth between the IRA and the British occupying army. Damien (Murphy) and his brother, Teddy (Padraic Delaney), are radicalized when British soldiers murder a close family friend for speaking Gaelic. Damien, a recent medical-school grad, turns down his trip to London so he can stay and join the IRA with Teddy to help drive the British out of their land.
Using Murphy as his calm but fiercely determined resister, Loach avoids speeches and rousing battle scenes in favor of demonstrating the natural evolution and consequences of violence. The IRA may get rid of the British, the British may return, and the process may be repeated. "Wind" shows that the constant is violence, which is not so easily expelled. Damien and Teddy maintain their resolute fervor even as each constructs an antagonistic opinion on how the situation in Ireland should resolve. The events in "Wind" are tragic indeed; the accompanying tragedy is that despite being well-represented here, they were little seen at the box office. (Not rated)