Ten years on from the last major film about the Irish Civil War (Neil Jordan's Michael Collins), Ken Loach offers an impassioned elegy for the Republican struggle within Ireland in the early '20s. Returning to the epic focus of his Spanish Civil War drama Land And Freedom, Loach explores the life-and-death dilemmas of fictional characters against a historical backdrop.
There's no doubting where Loach's sympathies lie in this David versus Goliath story. The opening scenes show a group of Irish lads enjoying a game of hurling; while heading home, they're apprehended by a patrol of British soldiers who verbally and physically humiliate their suspects, before beating one lippy man to death.
Loach patiently traces the process by which the Resistance movement is organised, Damien and his armed IRA colleagues being forced to lie low in safe houses between ambushes and facing the risk of imprisonment, torture and reprisals against their families.
Shot by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd in muted colours, the film becomes even more wrenching once a truce has established an Irish Free State and the nation has been partitioned. Those who dreamed of an independent socialist republic believe that their ideals have been betrayed by the Republicans in favour of the Anglo- Irish Treaty; Damien ending up at war with his brother, Teddy (Padraic Delaney), a one-time freedom-fighter.
By Hollywood standards, this was made on a shoestring budget. Yet with Loach handling the action set-pieces with aplomb and eliciting some fine ensemble performances, such penny-pinching rarely shows.