Winner of the grand prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, Loach's picture is all the more resonant for its intimacy and scale: This isn't a story of massive armies maneuvering across wide swaths of land, nor is it a romanticized profile of courage and sacrifice in the midst of war.
Instead, Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty show how the brutal rule of the Black and Tans - the British occupying force in Ireland - prompted farmers and blacksmiths, bankers and doctors, wives and mothers, to rise up and reclaim the country as their own.
And it shows how the "flying columns" of guerrilla fighters, in their tweed and wool and leather, transformed from ordinary folk to savvy militia, and how violence and death rooted down into their souls.
Cillian Murphy, the Irish actor of 28 Days Later. . . (and the comicbook villain of Batman Begins), stars as Damien O'Donovan, a medical student from a small village, who, as the film begins, is set to leave for London, and a promising career. But the beating death of a friend whose only crime was responding in Gaelic, rather than English, to a Black and Tan inquisitor - and the bullying by another squad of British soldiers at a station where Damien awaits his train - leads the young medico to change course.
His brother, Teddy (Padraic Delaney), and some other mates have already signed up with the fledgling IRA, and now Damien decides to do likewise.
Loach, whose left-leaning politics sometimes gets the better of his films (sloganeering in lieu of character development), clearly sides with the freedom fighters in their struggle against the Irish gentry, and the British troops. But the director also shows how war transforms everyone, whether the cause is right or wrong. There's a sad, jolting irony in the portrait of Murphy's Damien: a man who has sworn an oath to save lives, now training to take them.
One of The Wind That Shakes the Barley's most quietly chilling moments comes when Damien must deal with a traitor in his ranks; the stony intent in Murphy's eyes is belied by a quaking hand - a hand clasped tightly around a pistol.
There's no missing the parallels to another war in Loach's small, passionate, beautifully crafted film. Whether or not he had Iraq on his mind when he was shooting The Wind That Shakes the Barley, it's hard not to think of how Iraqis of all stripes are dealing with the presence of armed outsiders in their streets, on their doorsteps.
But it's not just Ireland, or Iraq. History repeats itself, all the time.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Ken Loach, written by Paul Laverty, photography by Barry Ackroyd, distributed by IFC First Take.
Running time: 2 hours, 4 mins.
Damien O'Donovan. . . Cillian Murphy
Teddy O'Donovan. . . Padraic Delaney
Sinead. . . Orla Fitzgerald
Dan. . . Liam Cunningham
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (violence, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz Five
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.
com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.