More by accident than design, Woolly Days has been movie-going in logical pairs of late. A couple of weeks ago, there was the air trouble double of United 93 followed by Snakes on a Plane. This week it is an Irish pair, a Cillian Murphy two-hander in films that approach the Irish wars from different historical angles, Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto and Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley.
Breakfast on Pluto is based on a novel by Patrick McCabe that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1998. It is Jordan’s second adaptation of a McCabe book, having previously filmed The Butcher Boy which was also shortlisted for the Booker. Set in the 1970s in the border area of Ireland (where McCabe himself grew up,) Breakfast on Pluto tells the story of the orphaned and sexually ambiguous Patrick 'Kitten' Braden and his adventures in Ireland and London. Cillian Murphy plays the role of Braden, who prefers to be known as Patricia or better still Kitten. He is a transvestite rebelling in his own way and oblivious to the political turmoil growing around him. His open gayness would have put him beyond the Pale in Ireland of the 1970s and this may explain why he was such a survivor from scrapes with the IRA, the British Army and interrogation and torture at the hands of the London Metropolitan Police. Kitten escapes the drabness and sectarian politics of smalltown Ireland and goes to London to find his mother.
The film is played out in a series of adventures which begin when he hitchhikes with an Irish rock band “Billy Hatchet and the Mohawks.” He gets involved with the band, has a love affair with Billy (Gavin Friday) and joins them onstage in Indian costume as “Running Bear” until the band believes that “the squaw is not working out”. He is forced to leave the country after he destroys an IRA arms cache. In London he is employed as a Womble of Wimbledon before falling under the spell of a magician (Neil Jordan regular Stephen Rea) who employs him as an assistant. He is in a London nightclub when it is bombed and he is arrested afterwards as the chief suspect, an Irish cross-dressing terrorist. He survives the police beatings and is released (unlike the real-life Guildford and Birmingham suspects who were convicted for being Irish in the wrong place at the wrong time). He drifts into prostitution and working in a Soho sex club before returning to Ireland. There his house is firebombed by homophobes and he ends up in London one more time. Kitten’s trusting nature and optimism seem horribly misplaced in a dangerous world. The boyish (girlish?) Murphy doesn’t look his thirty years and somehow makes the whacky world of Braden real and believable, always kicking against the pricks armed with nothing more than his fierce native honesty.
Politics forms the backdrop to Kitten’s adventures, but they always stay at the forefront of Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley. The film is set against the backdrop of the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War that immediately followed it in the years between 1919 and 1923. In 1919, the first Irish parliament – the Dáil - convened illegally in Dublin and called on the "free nations of the world" to recognise Ireland's independence. They used the guerrilla tactics of the Boers, with lightning fast raids usually at night before disappearing into the community. The British responded by deploying the Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve Force (better known by the colour of their initial uniforms the “Black and Tans”.) Their arbitrary reprisals against the civilian population after IRA attacks had the effect of alienating many anti-IRA Irish who found the British response repugnant. The British government eventually realised this was an unwinnable war. The two sides declared a truce in July 1921 and negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December that year. Under the terms of the treaty, the south of Ireland would have economic independence and become a Free State (similar to Canada and Australia), Northern Ireland would withdraw and Britain would enforce an Oath of Allegiance and keep her navy in three Treaty Ports. The terms of the Treaty were narrowly approved by the Dáil and its opponents continued the old war against the new Free State. The Civil War was a bitter feud that split families and cost the lives of more than had died in the War of Independence that preceded it. It ended in inevitable failure for the revolutionaries who paradoxically won at the ballot box when they formed the Fianna Fail party. Ireland gradually became more independent with its own constitution in 1937 and becoming a fully-fledged republic in 1949.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley takes its name from a 19th century Irish ballad about a rebel leaving his lover to fight against the British. Cillian Murphy has another central role; he plays Damien, a young idealistic doctor who becomes involved in the conflict after witnessing British armed brutality against civilians. His brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) is already an active IRA member. They form part of a successful West Cork flying squad until an informer betrays their position. Teddy is tortured by thumb screws but they escape prison before he reveals any useful information. The film shows how the men become steadily brutalised by their experiences. Damien is forced to execute one of his own men, a close friend who has become an informer. Eventually they hear the news of the Truce and the brothers split. Teddy is the political realist who supports the Treaty as a stepping stone to full Irish independence. Damien sees it as a betrayal of everything they fought for. They end up on opposite sides of civil conflict that followed with inevitable sad results.
The Wind That Shook the Barley is not a great film by Ken Loach standards. He tries to cover too much political ground in two hours and the film loses much of its emotional impact as a result. However it is still a very important film that takes an even-handed stance to what was a complex part of history. The histrionics shown by some British political commentators (not shared by its movie reviewers) on the release of the film shows how charged the material remains 85 years after the events. Cillian Murphy who hails from the part of Cork where filming of 'Barley' occurred, adds to his growing reputation in both these fine films.