A good humoured hurling match in West Cork opens Ken Loach's latest film, War of Independence/Civil War drama 'The Wind that Shakes the Barley', as young doctor Damien (Murphy) prepares to leave Ireland and continue his training in a London hospital. Laughter and insults are traded with the sliothar in one of the few light-hearted moments in this tragic but compelling film.

Despite opposition from his friends and older brother, Teddy (Delaney), Damien is determined to sidestep the politics of his homeland and continue his studies. This is 1920, though - the eve of the Irish War of Independence - and such disengagement simply isn't possible. One of Damien's friends is brutally murdered by the despised British Black and Tans a few days before he is due to leave and, when he goes to take the train to London, there's a nasty scene as an English army officer beats up an un-cooperative train driver (Cunningham).

Damien's conscience pricked, he turns to the welcoming arms of the Irish Republican Army where, amidst raids on police barracks, torture and betrayal, his youthful naivety is quickly destroyed as he struggles to come to terms with what he must do. But at least it's a struggle with a well-defined, 700-year-old enemy. There's a brief moment of celebration when the British call a truce but any triumph soon turns to tragedy when disagreements on the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty lead to a split between the pragmatists - led by Teddy, who believes in what Michael Collins called "freedom to achieve freedom" - and Damien's idealists who want complete freedom from England and an Ireland run along socialist principles. There's no middle road and civil war erupts as Damien and his fellow anti-Treatyites continue the fight, but now against old comrades, friends - and family.

Loach draws persuasive performances from his mainly Irish and often inexperienced cast with Cillian Murphy as the initially reluctant but ultimately passionate and patriotic centre of the film. He is well supported by Pádraic Delaney, playing his more practical brother, and the always-reliable Liam Cunningham, as train driver-turned-socialist Dan, makes the most of his political speeches.

The first half of the film - with its parallels between former British imperialism and current American foreign policy - has a pace, energy and intensity that is somewhat missing from the second hour. As the situation becomes increasingly complex, the balance between action and argument, while initially well managed by Loach and longtime screenwriter/collaborator, Paul Laverty ('Ae Fond Kiss...', 'Sweet Sixteen', 'Bread and Roses'), becomes uneven, undermining what could have been a more powerful ending. However, for Irish audiences, particularly those who had family members involved in both the War of Independence and Civil War, it will still have a deep resonance.  

Loach and Laverty pull no punches here and their even-handed treatment of atrocities and arguments on both sides give 'The Wind that Shakes the Barley' the range, depth and humanity that have marked all their films. Powerfully authentic and intelligent filmmaking.

Caroline Hennessy