Although the Cannes jury embraced the film, the latest offering from the veteran British award-winning filmmaker falls far below expectations.
Named after a 19th century Irish folk song, “Barley” follows Damien (Cillian Murphy of “28 Days Later,” “Red Eye,” and “Batman Begins”) as he attempts to suppress the abusive English Black and Tans alongside the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
After a long and plodding exposition, Damien and his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) end up fighting each other in battle, the result of an English treaty which causes Irish civil conflict.
While the Irish Civil War has not often been explored in film before, Loach presents an uninspired movie. The boring setup of “Barley” is the least of the film’s troubles.
The story is long and full of many complicating factors that overtake the film. Subplots meant to humanize the narrative instead leave the viewer unfazed. Unlike popular war films such as “Saving Private Ryan,” the characters never become people an audience can relate to, and all that is left is a simple recounting of events.
Nearly every film containing overt references to today’s foreign policy and championing the “make love, not war” philosophy (how original) still boasts an unique interwoven character-driven storyline to distinguish it from a straight-up history lesson. This fundamental cinematic approach can make such films engaging, as seen in “Three Kings” or “The Thin Red Line.”
Unfortunately, each character in “Barley” lacks a three-dimensional personality and fails to interact with others in any sort of compelling way.
Screenwriter Paul Laverty and director Loach leave no room for an actual narrative between the film’s many bloody scenes. The incredibly clichéd and predictable dialogue makes the characters even more robotic.
A last-ditch effort to imbue the film with emotion in the final scene falls flat, as the monotony of earlier scenes has dulled the audience to a point where any emotion fails to register.
A few small pleasures add to the drudgery of the film. Murphy, Delaney, and supporting actors Sabrina Barry and Liam Cunningham do what they can to breathe some life into their tired characters, though such moments are few and far between.
All is not lost, though. The violence that one would expect in a film like this is honest and brutal, just like the war itself. Handsome lensing shows off the shot-on-location countryside of Northern Ireland.
What advice can the jury at Cannes use this year, when many films will once again compete for the distinctive Palme d’Or? Here’s what I’d say: Look for a film that offers some humanity. The by-the-numbers “Barley” could have learned a thing or two from the award’s past recipients.
—Staff writer Christopher C. Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.