Lots of my favourite war films (Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan, etc.) start with a tremendous flourish, lots of ambivalence and confusion that eventually settles down into a somewhat traditional playing out of war film thematics. Loach’s film about Northern Ireland plays in exactly the opposite way. The first hour is so stark, so black-and-white that the Brit “bad guys” are so wooden and predictably evil they could be Nazis in a 50s serial. Englishmen blindly brutalize the protagonists without provocation, smashing bones with giddy abandon. Just when this onslaught of us-versus-them is at its highest point, chinks begin to form. Reference is made to the hell some of these soldiers survived in the Great War, and disagreements begin to arise amongst the Irish. Black and White begins it process towards grey.
The tone of the film becomes even more challenging (and beguiling) as a treaty is signed with the British overlords. The transition from guerilla to soldier is a fractious one, and it is here that the moral ambiguity of the film truly gains its complexity.
The last half of the film presents in a shockingly honest way the complexity of this transition. The performances are shattering, made all the more harrowing by the situations the characters find themselves in. Without ruining the ending, the film is absolutely unflinching, and what starts as a simple, adolescent tale of brotherhood and rebellion turns into a very adult, very real examination of the political and moral decisions driving nationalist organizations. Exceptional, intelligent, accessible, and poetic (in a good way!) it’s a film from the master Loach that’s not to be missed.