English director Ken Loach's powerful drama about brothers sundered by the Irish War of Independence stirred vicious controversy in the U.K.: Loach was accused of everything from treason to having made a recruiting film for the Irish Republican Army. County Cork, Ireland, 1920: Medical student Damian O'Donovan (Cillian Murphy) is about to leave for England...read more
English director Ken Loach's powerful drama about brothers sundered by the Irish War of Independence stirred vicious controversy in the U.K.: Loach was accused of everything from treason to having made a recruiting film for the Irish Republican Army.
County Cork, Ireland, 1920: Medical student Damian O'Donovan (Cillian Murphy) is about to leave for England to finish his studies. His older brother, Teddy (Padraic Delaney), galvanized by support for the Irish separatist party Sinn Fein in the 1918 general elections, is committed to the burgeoning struggle for Irish independence after 800 years of English rule. Damian's future is decided at the train station, where he bears witness to brutal retaliation by British Black and Tans members of the paramilitary Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve Force, former English and Scottish soldiers charged with suppressing Republican activity in Ireland against railway workers who, in accordance with an agreement not to transport British soldiers or arms, refuse them passage. Putting his medical career on hold, Damian joins forces with the charismatic Teddy, a natural leader, who's forming a local volunteer detachment to fight a guerrilla war against the British and their allies. But their idealistic struggle is destined for tragedy: By December 1921, when a truce is declared and the historic Anglo-Irish Treaty is signed by IRA leaders, the formerly unified Republicans are at each others' throats. Half see the treaty, which partitioned Ireland into the Southern republic and the unionist North that maintains its political ties to England, as a step in the right direction, while the rest regard it as a bitter betrayal of their dream of a free and unified Ireland. And inevitably, the O'Donovan brothers wind up eyeballing each other from across the divide.
Any synopsis risks making Loach's film sound like exactly what it isn't a Hollywood-style melodrama about sibling conflict played out against a backdrop of civil war. In Loach's and screenwriter Paul Laverty's hands, the relationship between the O'Donovan brothers and the larger political conflict are equally important, and on top of that, they boldly suggest that ordinary people are not only the muscle of revolution, but the brains as well. The vicious clamor the film occasioned in the U.K. is simply the measure of how volatile a subject the relationship between England and Ireland remains more than eight decades after the film's events, and the thinking viewer can hardly help but see parallels between the Irish insurgency and all subsequent guerrilla conflicts.