THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY directed by Ken Loach, written by Paul Laverty, with Cillian Murphy, Padraic Delaney and Liam Cunningham. A Christal release. 127 minutes. Opens Friday (March 16). Rating: NNNN
A couple of things about Cillian Murphy, the too-cute-to-be-so-serious star of The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
Firstly, his name is pronounced "Killian," not "Sillian" or even "Shillian," although he's far too polite to correct people most of the time, and besides, his friends call him Killy, which is a pretty cool nickname for someone with such a chilling gaze.
And about that gaze. He has the most piercing blue eyes since Paul Newman saddled up with the Sundance Kid. But you already knew that if you saw 28 Days Later, in which he stares intently while running from zombies, or the ironically titled Red Eye, in which he stares intently while giving Rachel McAdams some serious jet lag, or Batman Begins, in which he stares intently from the inside of a burlap sack.
Today, during the Toronto International Film Festival, he's staring intently at me while discussing The Wind That Shakes The Barley, the Ken Loach-directed (see related story, page 85) Palme d'Or winner about the Irish war of independence, set to premiere in just a few hours.
Murphy's wearing a pale blue T-shirt that softens his eyes, which in a certain light (just about any light, in fact) appear cold and menacing.
Unfortunately, it's several minutes into the interview before I realize I've missed quite a bit because of those eyes. "All I knew was I was playing one of two brothers who is a doctor who gets involved with the Irish Republican Army." Good thing I recorded the interview.
"You don't get a script when you work with Ken, just a sense of who your character is, and you work it out from there," Murphy continues in a soft Irish accent.
This improvisational approach strips away any tricks an actor might ordinarily rely on to get through a scene.
"Ken avoids all this intellectualization of acting, all this heady preparation and motivation. It's all instinct, in the moment. This takes away all the actor's safety nets. I love that, the freedom to say what you feel in a moment, the freedom to move and experience in the moment, using what you need and discarding everything else.
"No other director works like that. It's totally unique. Part of his genius is his ability to cast his films, selecting people who are close to the characters they play. The character is you."
Not that Murphy is sure exactly what Loach saw of him in the character of Damien, a doctor turned guerrilla fighter whose commitment to the cause of Irish independence puts him on the opposite side of the conflict from his brother.
"The thing with Damien, when he commits to something, he commits to it fully, and he cannot get off that road even if he wants to," Murphy says. "I don't know what the fuck I would do if I were in the situation Damien was in, so I'm not sure what parts of me were in him."
While Barley is a serious historical drama with a large cast of fully realized and subtly nuanced characters, Murphy says it's the least intellectual film he's ever done. Less intellectual than Batman Begins?
"Even the Scarecrow took preparation to find just the right notes to hit within this comic book world," he says.
THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (Ken Loach) Rating: NNNN
There are two very good reasons to see this archetypal tale of the growth of the IRA in the lead-up to and during the Irish Civil War of the early 1920s. The first is the way this complex political story is told on an intimate level, with families torn apart as people take sides in a questionable conflict, lending it both contemporary and Biblical resonance.
The second is star Cillian Murphy. Murphy is the thinking man's Colin Farrell, and he gives a simmering performance that pulls and claws and ultimately punches you in the guts.