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The Wind That Shakes The Barley won Ken Loach the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, and its star, Cillian Murphy reckons that’s just where the credit should go, with a film that tackles a pivotal moment in Irish/British history. For a Cork-born lad, it’s very close to home, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

Cillian (pronounced with a K) Murphy arrived in Sydney on a Monday morning from the North American premiere of The Wind That Shakes The Barley at the Toronto film festival, via a short Los Angeles stopover, and went straight into a series of media commitments, ending up with your reporter in the late afternoon, just prior to attending the Sydney premiere of the film at Dendy Opera Quays. His trip was even longer than the last sentence, but he showed no sign of jet lag, at least not by irritability.

Dressed in a plain, pale blue (and ever so slightly crumpled) cotton shirt, blue casual trousers with some featured buttons and sneakers, Murphy sits on the armchair of the hotel suite above the Dendy cinema at Circular Quay with an air of quiet acceptance. At one stage he pulls his legs up and squats on the chair, emphasising how compactly built he is.

"It’s really great if you like the film and to talk about it"

But no, he doesn’t mind the demands of media; “It’s really great if you like the film and to talk about it,” he says in his soft Irish brogue. For anyone who has seen Murphy play Kitten in Neil Jordan’s exceptional film, Breakfast On Pluto, it’s very hard – even after seeing him as 1920 Irish youth, Damien in Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winning The Wind That Shakes The Barley – to see him without thinking of Kitten. Breakfast On Pluto did rather badly at the Australian box office, which is a loss for audiences. The DVD should do better: it’s a remarkable film and Murphy’s is a remarkable performance.

When asked if he feels any sense of attachment or ownership in the Palme d’Or, Murphy is almost shocked at the suggestion. “Oh God no, no, that’s all Ken Loach and Paul Laverty [writer]. We all put everything we had into it, because it was such great work.”

The story is about a vital piece of Irish history. In 1920 Ireland, the ordinary people of the land unite to form volunteer guerrilla armies to face the ruthless Black and Tan squads that are being shipped from Britain to block Ireland's bid for genuine independence. As the freedom fighters' bold tactics bring the British to breaking point, a treaty is declared. But, despite the apparent victory, civil war erupts and men who have fought side by side, now find themselves pitted against one another as enemies, in disagreement about the treaty signed with Britain. Some say it’s not real freedom for the Irish, while others see it as a start.

The setting is in and around Cork, where the film was shot. “This happened only a couple of generations ago,” says Murphy, himself from Cork, “so every family has some direct or indirect story about the period. These were very special young men and women who gave their lives for a cause, so it was all very sensitive.”

Murphy plays Damien, one of the young men who is against signing the treaty with Britain, because it doesn’t give the Irish full independenc, relying on Britain for economic and other rule. This was the schism that set up the two parties with the same policies but differing on the big issue, and the event that created the partition of Ireland, so it’s a pivotal moment in history.”

A treaty – forged after bloody battles and skirmishes in a vicious guerrilla war - under which they had to still swear allegiance to the Crown seemed no victory at all.

Murphy says that in preparation for any role, “it’s your duty to be armed with as much information as possible. Whether you use it all is another matter. Damien is a medical student at University College Cork who has just qualified. He has won a place in London to train as a doctor - and back then, to go to London would have been a massive thing. He has an opportunity which many of the other lads don't have. The idea of going to London, to be away from all of the fighting, is hugely attractive to him. This option makes his decision to stay all the more difficult. What I felt, thinking about what these men did, and what drove them, was that it had to be what they witnessed, and how they were personally affected. It's all very well to hold up an ideal, to aspire to something, but to take up arms is another question.”

For all its proximity to his culture and his own background, Damien was a tough role to play, says Murphy, precisely because “it was so close to home… it only needed a slight adjustment” from his real persona. Referring to Kitty, he says “there’s almost safety in the transformation” to a very different character.

"you can move freely, as the character drives you"

But the work was made exciting and satisfying and safe by the unique way that Ken Loach works. “He doesn’t like to talk about his work methods much but I can tell you, actors love it. He doesn’t give you the shooting script, just the basic elements, and he shoots it chronologically. And the set is devoid of the excesses of film sets – there are no trailers and no make up unless it’s essential … the cameras are far awy, using a long lens, and Ken never shouts Action! Or Cut! It’s all designed to get the best possible performances. Even non-professionals can work like this because there are no strict marks or movements to remember … you can move freely, as the character drives you.”

By the same token, Murphy says it’s like having the safety net “whipped from under you” and he loves that. Which explains the amazing diversity of his work, from crazed kidnappers (Red Eye) to the Scarecrow in Batman Begins or the transvestite Kitty in Pluto … And coming up, his first out and out comedy role, co-starring with Lucy Liu in Watching the Detectives, for writer director Paul Soter. “It’s a hilarious script…” But it’s risky, too. “Yes, but I find that if I read a script and I’m terrified about doing the role, that’s the one I’ll take.”

Published September 21, 2006

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