Ronan Doyle’s review:
First film of the Letterboxd festival
I've never been one for patriotism. I have a certain protective view of my country, as any animal does of its territory, but the idea of flag-flying nationalism and jingoistic support of one's land just doesn't appeal very much to me (I speak German miles better than I do Irish, for instance). As such, I attribute the sense of esprit de corps I felt with these men far more to the strength of the filmmaking than to my own connection to the cause by birthright. There's an undeniable sense of siding with the Irish on the part of Loach and his screenwriter Paul Laverty, no arguing that, but the way in which they do so is such that it slowly persuades us of the validity of the cause. Much like Murphy's character, we are gradually roped in by the sense that not putting up a fight would somehow be wrong. This narrative persuasion naturally comes at the expense of the English soldiers' humanity, Loach and Laverty having to somewhat demonise them in the process. It's a problem, albeit one somewhat mitigated by a nice scene where one of the rebels converses with a soldier who opines that his being there is an act of loyalty to his nation too. The central fraternal relationship is maybe a bit clumsy in its contextualisation of the second conflict in the film, that between the pro and anti-Treaty forces. Covering both wars in the one film isn't all too easy, and the latter feels a little hastily treated, though the emotions it carries makes this less of a problem. It's in the naturalism of his characters that Loach finds his finest successes, the scene wherein the group discuss the pros and cons of the Irish Free State treaty a remarkable real sequence. By working without excess reaction shots, Loach makes it a more difficult task for each of the actors to espouse their characters' opinions. In doing so it sounds far less professional, less rehearsed, less written. Normally an actor tripping over their words makes the scene awkward to watch; Loach here uses it to emphasise the off-the-cuff passion of these people, the tension of the room in the heat of the moment, and the almost sickening shift of one brotherhood into two rival ones. It's a magnificent scene, certainly the film's best in my opinion, and one everything else has a bit of a tough time living up to. With cinematography that very nicely juxtaposes natural beauty and the ugliness of human conflict, it's a film with clear sympathies but one that nevertheless manages to find folly in mankind as a whole. Excellent performances, in particular from Liam Cunningham and Murphy (even if his accent is a little accentuated for my sensitive ears, the whole thing's set in my part of the country) make it engaging throughout, a wholly enjoyable and investing experience.