A devastating thresher of a film by Ken Loach about the early days of the IRA in rural Ireland, 1920. Damien (Cillian Murphy) is a young doctor about to move to the teaching hospitals in London, leaving the provincial life behind him. However, having witnessed the pointless brutality of the British Black and Tans regiment, he is compelled to stay behind in Ireland and joins the Irish Republican Army to drive out the British and establish a democratic Irish republic. Damien leads a small but determined militia against the British, ambushing them to acquire weapons. When caught, the British soldiers are ruthless in their torture and punishment of the Irish rebels.
Paul Laverty's screenplay skilfully covers a number of issues relating to the rebellion: hatred of the cruel treatment by the British, a worker's desire for socialism, the impact of brother fighting against brother, the amateurish training of the Irish rebels, the in-fighting and disagreements about what they are fighting for and what to do with their power once they have it, the involvement of the women, the stubborn pride of the republicans, the moral guidance offered by the clergy.
Loach bludgens his audience with realistic detail and rounded characters. There are token scenes to sketch out the wider implications of the plot, but they don't feel at all clunky. There is, for example, a politically slanted sermon by a Catholic priest to demonstrate how the clergy side with whoever has money and power, and a civil court scene to demonstrate how the women have taken over administrative roles and seek to establish a more just, egalitarian society.
Although it only covers a short period in history, the film manages to convey the hopeless struggle of ideologies and the factions within factions as the men and women fighting for Ireland's freedom have many conflicting motives. Once the Irish Free State is established, not all of the IRA freedom fighters are happy because the senators will be made to swear an allegiance to the King of England still. Yet had the British granted full independence, they would have succumbed to similar nationalist movements all across the Empire much sooner than they did.
Nugget: an important and impeccably observed film with an outstanding performance by Cillian Murphy in the lead roll and a strong supporting cast.