Sunday, 8 June 2014

REVIEW: Jimmy's Hall (2014)

Jimmy’s Hall is in may ways a follow-up to The Wind That Shakes The Barley, expanding on that film’s theme about how Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which ended the War of Independence and brought about the partition of Ireland, was a betrayal of the socialist ideals of the IRA. This version of Irish history remains contentious amongst historians, but The Wind That Shakes The Barley was nonetheless a powerful film about the clash of pragmatism and idealism in war (amongst other things), just like the earlier Land And Freedom. Jimmy’s Hall then is set ten years later – in 1932 – and examines the independent Ireland’s continued betrayal of the left, though at a smaller level.

James Gralton (Barry Ward) returns to Leitrim, Ireland after ten years in America, having fled from the security forces for agitation. Now back, he wants to have a quiet life and help his mother Alice (Aileen Henry) around the house. However, it isn’t long before the local kids – lead by Marie (Aisling Franciosi) – bored by the dances approved by the Church, beg James to reopen his fabled dance hall. Ten years ago, James taught dancing, music and politics before he was forced to flee. Finally agreeing to reopen the hall, James finds himself under attack from his political enemies all over again, including Father Sheridan (Jim Norton) and a local landowner O’Keefe (Brían F. O’Byrne).

Ken Loach’s best films can engage with a political debate in a way that humanises that debate, bringing it down to real terms. Riff Raff very clearly and concisely shows the problems of builders being forced to work on unsafe building sites while also being very funny and moving. Raining Stones shows the lives of long-term unemployed people, their attempts to find pride in their lives, in a way that thoroughly counters the government’s preferred description of them as lazy spongers. The Navigators almost prophetically told us why rail privatisation would be a bad thing. Meanwhile, Loach’s historical films often attempt to represent alternative histories. Jimmy’s Hall then is a film that shows how a conservative priest-ridden Ireland (as Joyce called it) betrayed the people by oppression and the refusal to allow dissident voices in times of turmoil. That James Gralton was ultimately deported from his homeland never to return is shocking, but it is also a little known part of Irish history. The connection between a post-Depression Ireland and a post-Tiger, recession Ireland is easy to make, but Jimmy’s Hall is ultimately a tribute to those who speak out against conventional wisdom and who refuse to be silenced.

The film, then, is one of oppression and is such it is a fairly typical exercise, keeping close to the expected story beats. It is not entirely successful in avoiding its own clichés – we all know, for example, that the chirpiest member of the dance hall will be the one to suffer the most brutal consequences. The other problem with the film is in it’s first half, which jumps back and forward through time, clearly trying to deliver as much information as possible before the action can properly begin, but getting hopelessly bogged down in quick flashback scenes which add little beyond exposition. It gives the film a sluggish and slightly confused feel, which the rest of the film never quite escapes. Ultimately, the film only rarely seems to get right to the heart of the matter – there are a few debate scenes that recall the best scenes from Land And Freedom and The Wind That Shakes The Barley, though here they just don’t work quite so well.

Oddly, Loach avoids addressing Gralton’s socialism all that much. We know that he teaches these ideas because we have been told that he does, but there are very few scenes in which his ideas are portrayed, where they are brought to life. Surely the film would be doing more justice to his ideas if it represented them realistically and empathically for a modern-day audience. Loach and his regular writer Paul Laverty seem to be wary of being criticised as dogmatic, but surely they would only be doing justice to the ideas. Indeed, it is not hard to see why the misleading trailer (which suggests that what Jimmy’s Hall is primarily about, and what the priests oppose most, is simply the dancing – making it look like an Irish Dirty Dancing) was made the way it was, since there’s so little of the politics.

There is something stilted and badly thought out about Jimmy’s Hall, possibly something to do with the fact that most of the script is speculation. Even the performances, rare for Loach, suffer, with Ward having little to fully get his teeth into and others, like Aileen Henry, left looking lost. The romance between James and Oonagh (Simone Kirby), an invented character, is shockingly awkward and by-the-numbers for Ken Loach – the man who made My Name is Joe. The best scenes are few and far between and are almost always too short and fail to dig far enough beneath the surface. The film lacks a forward momentum until its final moments, a surprise when one remembers not only the pace and energy of the recent The Angels’ Share and Laverty-scripted Icíar Bollaín-directed Even The Rain but also the passion and the force of those films’ political argument. Jimmy’s Hall is moving, especially towards the end, and it does make you angry – just as every Ken Loach film should – but, sadly, it just doesn’t seem moving or angry enough.

See also:
The Spirit of '45

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