This movie is absolutely phenomenal. Hardly an uplifting flick, but a masterpiece nonetheless.
The film is about the Anglo-Irish War and the rise of the Irish free state. It's caused a bit of controversy, probably because the British don't much like to be reminded of their brutal imperialism, but personally, I think it ought to be required viewing for everyone who decks themselves out in Union Jacks (butcher's aprons, as the movie calls them) or blithely orders Black and Tans in Irish pubs. It's an oft neglected bit of history that people really ought to pay more attention to.
But aside from any personal interest in Irish history, it's a remarkable film about rebellion, war, and independence. The brilliance of the movie is in its carefully wrought plot - rather than being a sweeping historical epic, painted in broad strokes, it's more like a carefully assembled series of vignettes, with thematic links. Though it has an overall frame, following the story of two brothers, it comfortably shifts to other issues and doesn't hammer in the "human side". Rather, the plot twists and circles in on itself, returning to questions of justice, betrayal, independence, revolution and the rule of law, in subtle, but powerful ways.
The film is quite brutal, but not gratuitously so. It depicts violence, and cruelty, in an unflinching manner, but I wouldn't call it gory. It also contains long scenes of dialogue, discussions about the beginning of Irish independence and what free Ireland should look like, but these don't seem drawn out or tiresome. Likewise, the love scenes are touching, and relevant, but not over-the-top. Though I did sob at moments, I never felt that I was being emotionally manipulated in some cheap fashion. There are some gorgeous shots of the Irish landscape, but they're remarkably subdued in comparison to most films set in Ireland, which simply can't resist panning over the glorious green fields of Erin. This may be the film's greatest strength - it's quiet restraint, and subtlety. The director recognizes the power of the subject, and doesn't need to dress it up. The acting and dialogue are superb, the story is delicately woven, and the cinematography is excellent. The film has a messy, chaotic feel to it that's very appropriate for depicting a country in turmoil. Also the sound has a curious muffled quality - though this may be because I watched it here in Poland, where I'm vacationing with family, and where presumably most of the audience is reading subtitles. Muffled or not, it's certainly the case that there are many moments where a lot of people are talking at once, giving the film a crowded, bustled atmosphere.
All in all, a brilliant work. Though admittedly, perhaps, not the most obvious choice for holiday entertainment. The woman at the box office was somewhat appalled that this was the movie we came to see on Christmas Day: "Ma'am, you do realize that this is a WAR movie, right?"
Anyhow, highly recommended.