The top grossing Irish film in the 2006 box office was also its most controversial. Ken Loach's The Wind that Shakes the Barley won the 'Palme d'Or' at Cannes in May '06, was released in Ireland in June '06 and had become the highest grossing domestically produced film ever by August '06. (1) Set during the War of Independence and the Civil War, the film starred Cillian Murphy alongside a mix of professional and non-professional actors, and followed the fates of two Cork-born brothers who, in the best tradition of the Civil War narrative, ultimately ended up on opposing political sides of the conflict.
What I would like to explore here is not so much the content of the film, which is very much in the mould of Loach's oeuvre, but the responses to it from a variety of interest groups who made the most of the media's fallow summer period to express their disparate and often conflicting opinions on a film that was widely perceived as a 'corrective' to Neil Jordan's earlier Michael Collins (1996). Here was the Fianna Fail film that would set the record straight on Jordan's romanticisation of the Civil War hero whose short life and political career promised a future that was rudely usurped by de Valera and the party he led into, and maintained in, power.
As didactic as one expects Loach's work to be, The Wind that Shakes the Barley did not invite debate as a consequence of its own narrative construction but because of its provocative position-taking. Unsurprisingly, the first shots fired in the ideological battleground were by those who had not seen the film. Simon Heffer, biographer of Enoch Powell, shared his feelings with his Daily Telegraph (June 3) readers thus:
Talking of hypocrisy, has there been any more nauseating lately than that of the bigoted Marxist film director Ken Loach on winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes? ... He hates this country, yet leeches off it, using public funds to make his repulsive films. And no, I haven't seen it, any more than I need to read Mein Kampf to know what a louse Hitler was.
Whatever about his sentiments, Heffer's labelling of Loach's film as British is contentious; for Irish critics, politicians and the Irish Film Board this was indisputably an Irish film. Financing, in fact, had come from an amalgam of sources; officially the film was an Irish/UK/Spanish/Italian/German co-production and various accounts produce different budgetary figures. It seems that, of a budget of 6.4m [euro], 3.6m [euro] was raised under Section 481; the balance came from the Irish Film Board, the UK Film Council's New Cinema fund and Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen, with smaller contributions from the other partners. The film was shot in Ireland and post-produced in Britain, probably for the last time after British chancellor, Gordon Brown's, announcement that from now on tax relief would only be applicable to those films produced in Britain.
Financing is, obviously, only one measure of a film's identity; and we could argue that its nationality, if it must have one, could equally be decided by creative intent. What's interesting here is that both the principal territories with an investment in claiming the film read it as a reflection on their own particular political and historical concerns. For Loach, The Wind that Shakes the Barley was an anti-imperialist film that covertly critiqued British involvement in Iraq, not the first instance of a British artist using the Irish situation to make a statement about their own country's military/political campaigns, nor indeed the first time that Loach himself had done this, …