Director Ken Loach and the Troubles He’s Seen
Filmmaker Turns His Keen Eye on Ireland’s Struggle For Independence
British director Ken Loach has defined something of a gold standard in tough social-realist filmmaking, an heir to the Italian neo-realists of the 1940s and Eastern European new wave of the 1960s. Over four decades, with such films as “Kes” (1969), “Riff-Raff” (1990), “Ladybird Ladybird” (1994) and “My Name Is Joe” (1998), he has created unforgettable portraits of characters most often found on the margins of mainstream movies, or left out altogether.
Of course, Loach, 70, might object to the term “gold standard.” A socialist, he has maintained a steadfast commitment to a collectivist, class-oriented understanding of politics and history. What’s more, he’s managed to achieve an enviable degree of longevity in a fickle business, financing his films through European co-production and making them modestly but consistently profitable.
Loach was in New York recently, discussing his new film, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” about the fight for Irish independence from British occupation in 1920, which resulted in the British leaving southern Ireland, the partition of northern Ireland, and decades of brutal sectarian violence.
The film, which stars Cillian Murphy as a fictional early member of the Irish Republican Army, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year and opens in Washington on Friday.
— Ann Hornaday
Q. A. It’s a story we wanted to do for a long time, really. . . . It’s the most important moment in Anglo-Irish history. Because before, Ireland was a colony, and after it was largely independent, so this was the turning point.
It’s a story that the Irish know very well and the British don’t know at all. If you were to ask most people in Britain, they would say that the British are in Ireland to stop the Irish fighting
Why this film, why now?
each other — and that Britain has no responsibility for that: “We’re just there out of the goodness of our hearts.” I mean, there’s no sense of the violence done to the Irish.
The fact that peace was so close at hand will surprise most American audiences.
What’s interesting is, this handful of people actually got the British Empire — the most powerful empire in the world — out of their country. And then, just when they were on the brink of almost total victory, the deal that the British offered actually scuppered the chance at peace for a century. They could have just taken the democratic decision of the Irish people in 1918, that they should be independent and united. They could have just withdrawn, and that was it. End of killing. But no, they had to screw it up.
The allegorical associations with the U.S. occupation in Iraq are inescapable. Was that your aim?
Well, it wasn’t the reason for making it. It’s such a classic example of an imperialist power being forced to withdraw and how it withdraws, so whenever you make it there will be some situation, somewhere, that you can make a comparison [with]. One comparison you can make [with Iraq] is that an army of occupation against the wishes of the people always leads to a spiral of violence.
You are considered one of the progenitors of contemporary British socialist realism, both politically and aesthetically. In America, we seem to have either mainstream Hollywood films with a politically oriented plot, like “Erin Brockovich,” or documentaries like “An Inconvenient Truth.”
I would say the films that come out of Hollywood are very political. “Truth Needs a Soldier.” The CIA films. The Cold War films. I mean, the films that come out of Hollywood are very right-wing. Very reactionary. “One man with a gun will solve your problems.” “Look at all my wealth and worship it.” Also, it’s an individual. It’s not the collective. And that says a lot, doesn’t it? Because the left is about collective action, and the right is about the powerful individual.
Did Hollywood ever beckon?
I had invitations to come to America in the early 1970s, but we had four kids under the age of 6, so it just didn’t seem a good thing to do. There wasn’t a really good reason to come except to pursue money and fame, and who needs that? [Laughs]
Do you go to the movies?
Not very often, no, I’m afraid not. I go and watch the football more, because you don’t know how they’re going to end. With films, you really know how they’re going to end most of the time.
What do you make of the medium right now?
All the films are the same. It’s like having McDonald’s and KFC everywhere. They’re all overplayed, and they’re all overdramatized. The emotions are hyped up, and the music is laid on with a trowel, and it’s just crude, really. That’s what’s sad. The medium can’t breathe for this straitjacket that everybody’s in. It’s just an assault.
And if your kids are going, they’re just being battered, really. And they’ll get accustomed to that, until the still small voice just doesn’t have a place.
“It’s a story that the Irish know very well and the British don’t know at all,” Loach says of his topic in “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.”