"The Wind That Shakes the Barley" a Cannes winner that will break your heart

Ken Loach's tragic, beautiful film takes its poetic name from a 19th-century Irish song by Robert Dwyer Joyce. Its lyrics include these: " 'Twas hard for mournful words to frame / To break the ties that bound us, /Ah but harder still to bear the shame / Of foreign chains around us." These lines are an eloquent summation of "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," set in 1920 Ireland as the country struggled for independence from Britain and internal strife pitted brother against brother. Through it all, the wind blows on the rough green hills, a quiet reminder of what's at stake in their battle.

Loach, a master of naturalism whose films hold a candle to injustice ("Land and Freedom," "Bread and Roses"), introduces his characters all at once: a band of young Irishmen gathering at a friend's farm to say goodbye to Damien (Cillian Murphy), a just-starting-out doctor soon to begin a job at a London hospital. Their voices overlap, their musical brogues rise and fall, and American ears may struggle to understand; we're being introduced to a world with its own rhythms. Language is celebrated here, from the haunting title phrase to the William Blake quote ("and binding with briars my joys and desires") scrawled on a jail-cell wall; listen closely to the music of this film's voices, and be rewarded.

And you'll also be heartbroken in the course of the film's two hours. Damien decides early on to give up his London job and stay to fight the British with his friends, which include his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) and Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald), the country girl whom Damien doesn't quite realize that he loves. The story becomes as harsh as the Irish landscape, complete with bullets, torture, betrayal and the terrible price of war. At first, the group we meet in the opening scene seems united; but as Ireland is faced with a decision over a peace treaty with Britain (which would grant only partial independence), they divide into factions and turn on each other. "This is not the will of the people," rages Damien, horrified that many are bowing to pressure to support the treaty. "This is the fear of the people."

The grand-prize winner at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival last spring, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" is about howling in the wind, about fighting for something that seems to be slipping away, and about what is worth the fight. "Get off my land!" sobs Sinead, in an emotional scene near the end, speaking for many of the characters; that land, with its chilly grandeur, has become a part of her.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review 4 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"The Wind That Shakes the Barley," with Cillian Murphy, Padraic Delaney, Liam Cunningham, Orla Fitzgerald, Mary O'Riordan, Mary Murphy. Directed by Ken Loach, from a screenplay by Paul Laverty. 127 minutes.

Not rated; for mature audiences (contains violence).