Ken Loach’s latest film “Jimmy’s Hall”, was adapted By Paul Laverty from the paly by actor/ writer Donal O’Kelly (who plays on one of the three Roscommon IRA activists in the film).
While nowhere as upbeat as the comic, very accessible “The Angels’ Share” (also written by Laverty), Loach has done the difficult task of making a radical political statement mainstream.
Laverty and Loach take on the post Civil War split between progressive IRA radicals and the conservative IRA operatives, now in collusion with the repressive establishment.
Set in the 30’s in a post Civil War Ireland, sharply divided over class, economic and ideological differences, It’s a sequel of sorts to “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”, which showed Ireland’s struggle for independence. the Easter Rising, but “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” was a far subtler film with a cast of complex characters and unexpected events.
As in that film, Loach and Laverty mix fictional characters and sub plots with historical characters and events. They also serve up some rousing (if thinner) ideological debate, because this film itself is more facile and ingratiating.
Somehow it’s too much a Hallmark film in its whitewashing of red bating, and less a Loach film, but elegant production values and a strong cast carries a rather simplistic script over the finish line.
Shaggy-haired Barry Ward is wildly attractive as James Gralton, but he remains a cypher, a cardboard hero, sort of live action Dudley Do-Right. Francis Magee (“Game Of Thrones”, “EastEenders”) plays old fellow traveller Mossie.
Grafton has a perfect foil in Jim Norton (“Straw Dogs”, “Star Trek:The Next Generation”) as Father Sheridan, the red-baiting priest who refuses to cede any power in his parrish to free thinkers or secular educators. Whiskey-voiced Norton, (whose last Loach film was “Hidden Agenda”) is a scene-stealer as the controlling Sheridan, who will stoop to any dirty trick to maintain the Church’s Hegemony.
We’ve seen this sort of repressive hell and brimstone priest countless times, but to their credit, Loach and Laverty give Sheridan a few surprising moments.
Andrew Scott plays the younger Father Seamus who cautions Sheridan against inflaming a backlash) also adds life to the film.
Eileen Henry, a first-time actress discovered in an open casting session, plays Jimmy’s mother with gravitas and charm deepening the film whenever she appears. She’s a glimpse at what the film might have been with a more ambitious script.
Opening titles play over archival footage of the New York’s bustling streets and rising skyscrapers.
When long time immigrant Jimmy Grafton, now a U.S. citizen, returns to Ireland to care fro his aging mother, he’s already on the radar of the local repressive forces.
JImmy returned once before to aid in the Easter Rebellion and built Pearse-Connolly Hall on his family’s land in County Leitrim. The working class hall gave education and hope to the tenant farmers, oppressed by the local landowners, worked to death or tossed off the land at the Landlords whim. Attacked by the establishment of politicians, Earls and the Church, Jimmy left for the States.
Back home again, he’s the focus of the local youth, hungering for something to do. They’ve heard of the Social Jimmy and his father ran before he emigrated, and beg him to reopen it. A substitute for a local Church meeting hall, the ‘Liberty Hall’ was a place for classes, allowing the downtrodden workers to better themselves, as well as a Marxist meeting place and dance hall. And so it will be again.
Before Jimmy reopens the long boarded up meeting hall, townsfolk gather in the crossroads to dance, stopping the traffic of infrequent vehicles and sheepherders driving their sheep to pasture.
Soon the whole community is ‘barn raising’ the Hall. Scenes of the group endeavor are both rousing and comforting, Utopian in our current “bottom line” economic climate.
Once up, classes in everything from writing to swing dancing commence.
An invented sub-plot does enhance the film as James and his once sweetheart, now married Oonagh (porcelain-eyed Simone Kirby), blooms one more time before he s deported back to the States.
Little moments enliven the film. James presents Oonagh with a glorious silk frock from New York, just a tad out of date, as a dress would be if a working class bloke saved up for it, bought it and kept it until he could return to his home country. Oonagh tries it on for him in secret in the closed Hall, in a scene of wondrous sentiment and longing.
A tranquil scene with a class listening to young Mary read a Yeats Poem is timeless, as are the occasional dance scenes.
Furious Father Sheridan, worried that the vested interest of the landlords and the social order overseen by the Clergy, would be challenged once again, plots with the Landowners (some of them hated Brits) to roust Grafton for good: picketing, arson, ambushes, the situation accelerates under his guidance. He hounds the Hall. taking names of anyone who attends the classes, meetings or dances and castigating them on Sunday in God’s house.
Aisling Franciosi plays young Marie, daughter of the IRA veteran Commander O’Keefe (Brian F O’Byrne) who drags her out of Church and, despite her mother’s pleas, beats her bloody after Father Sheridan accuses her of keeping bad company.
“What is this craze for pleasure?” bellows Sheridan from the Sunday pulpit. “Jazz is the devil’s music. The sins of jazz music and the rhythms from darkest Africa with pelvic thrusts may poison the minds,” Sheridan teaches his congregation, warning against the Americanization, even worse the “Los Angelization of our culture”. This allusion seems a bit of a stretch, an attempt to decry LA’s pop monopoly of contemporary Global Culture.
Labelled a Communist, Jimmy’s arrested and deported without a trial; the only person ever deported from Ireland.
Despite interesting ideological debates, the well-intentioned script is thin on character and story tension and long on stereotypical situations and folksy behavior. Perhaps the problem lies with the original play?
Loach began collaborating with Paul Laverty, a former Human Rights activist in the mid-nineties, Their first collaboration, “Carla’s Song,” dealt with the US-backed war against the Sandinistas. They have made 10 films together including “Bread & Roses” (about the Los Angeles janitors’s struggle to unionize), and “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”, which won the Palme d’Or At the Cannes Film Festival, as well as ” My Name Is Joe”,”Sweet Sixteen”. “Ae Fond Kiss”,”It’s a Free World”, “The Angels’ Share.”
D.P. Robbie Ryan (“Philomena”, “The Angels’ Share”) used natural lighting and gaslight to craft a glowing egeliac look. Shot in 1.85 ratio on Kodak 35mm film, It’s manualy edited on an old-school Steembeck machine (on edge-numbering tape donated by Pixar) by longtime Loach collaborator, No doubt it will be the last film created in this fashion.
The film is gorgeous, featuring subtle production design by Fergus Clegg, art direction by Stephen Daly, and Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s perfect costumes. geoge Fenton’s score charms.