Historical cinema has a sheen. It's almost always there: a melodramatic sepia tone, an overly tailored costume, a precisely enunciated snippet of old-timey talk. There's a falseness to period films, usually.
But then there's The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach's drama that takes place in 1920s Ireland. Loach's controversial film is stunning for a number of reasons, but most obvious is that not a single moment feels anachronistic: Five minutes in, you'll forget it's a period piece.
The British Loach surveys his setting with an unforgiving, steady eye: Involving the Irish Civil War and the Irish War of Independence, the story of The Wind That Shakes the Barley is closely tied to that of the Irish Republican Army. Brothers Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Padraic Delaney) are set in disparate directions: Damien to study in London, and Teddy to stay behind. But several vicious actions by Ireland's British occupiers change Damien's mind—soon, he's fighting in the IRA alongside his brother. But the real conflict begins when the British and Irish sign a treaty—while Teddy accepts the compromise, Damien is intent on continuing the fight.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and it's apparent why immediately: The plight of the rural Irish is painstakingly detailed, though screenwriter Paul Laverty's story is less about politics and more about obsession. The performances are key: Murphy, always great, transforms into the fervent Damien, and the fact that Delaney matches his performance is no small feat. But ultimately the actors, the direction, and the heartfelt story are just factors here—the end result is one that's gripping from a historical standpoint, but it also bursts with contemporary relevance. Rooted in history, The Wind That Shakes the Barley subtly but boldly reaches into the present—and while the film is beautiful to look at and painful to feel, its greatest accomplishment might be that it simply feels true.