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Tuesday, 3 June 2014

A safe space […] where we can dance ?

This is a review of Jimmy’s Hall (2014)

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2 June (updated 3 June, following Ken Loach's masterly Q&A, as hosted by The Arts Picturehouse's (@CamPicturehouse's) own Jack Toye (@jackabuss))

This is a review of Jimmy’s Hall (2014)

Director Ken Loach first began working with screenwriter Paul Laverty on Carla’s Song (1996), then My Name is Joe (1998), since when (including this one) they have made ten further films together*. Their previous film was The Angels’ Share (2012), but, certainly once we are out of Glasgow, it occupies significantly different territory in terms of historicity and emotional depth from that of Jimmy’s Hall (2014) (even if it is rooted in the world of rare malt whisky, and lost or ‘mothballed’ distilleries) :

The Angels' Share romps with its central conceit, whereas Jimmy’s Hall broods over its. In between, Loach made The Spirit of ‘45 (2013), though…

The opening sequence proper – with just a rill of bright water as variation from the slow process of Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) and his effects, being hauled along the winding road – complements other moments of transit in the film, just as 1922 (located by the ‘ten years earlier’ of a caption to come around ten minutes later), is an adjunct to understanding where we have begun : parallels, paths, not mapped out, but taken (not lightly), and then What are the sequelae… ?

The story-telling montage has told us much already, with news-reel footage** from New York City of the early-to-late 1920s, showing the boom and bust of The Great Depression : when, after a pivotal moment a good while later on (to which we return anon), Jimmy refers to what happened with The Wall Street Crash, we both have those images, and they have already helped us understand his own history. Personal experience as motivation for campaigning for change, but pitted against the masters and pastors (as we heard them succinctly referred to) and what they wish to protect.

Without a doubt, in Jimmy’s impassioned plea to reject greed in favour of motives such as love, Loach and Laverty are appealing to our times of austerity and downturn. They are pointing the lesson that – though, of course, the film never uses any such word – sustainability, and people being able to have something that they can rely on to ground a worthwhile life, are what being alive should be about, not facing eviction for missing a payment of rent…

In Jim Norton, as Father Sheridan (on ‘the pastor’ side of things), Loach has gone with an inspired choice, casting Father Ted’s Bishop Brennan as the man from the church who is pushing, with landowners / high-ups such as O’Keefe (Brían F. O'Byrne), for the status quo, even embracing (in words, at any rate) the cause of Irish country dancing so that he can denigrate American jazz for (supposedly) seeking to supplant it. Norton has more fire, of a zealous kind, just in his eyes than many another actor would have in the whole of enacting a towering tirade, and he makes a perfect complement for Jimmy (and has his foil in Father Seamus).

Yes, the exact detail may be fable, with exaggeration, conflation or invention, but no one is claiming that this is a bio-pic (whatever defines one), any more than with Saving Mr. Banks (2013). It is a telling of the origins of The Pearse–Connolly Hall 1922, Co. Leitrim, filmed on location there, and in Co. Sligo (which, Ken Loach seemed to be saying in the Q&A, was where the replica was built). It is the telling of Jimmy Gralton (who died on 29 December 1945), even if, in part, fictionalized.

At the start of the film, when the cart has had to interrupt the dancing that Father Sheridan later affects to approve, Jimmy apologizes for having missed ‘Charlie’s funeral’ (his brother) – it is just a fleeting moment, as his mother acknowledges the words, but it hints at exile, exile where his mother may have been under the care of pastoral visits from Sheridan. Loach, who is sceptical of authority and what it does to people’s motives (as in the powerful film Hidden Agenda (1990), set in Northern Ireland at the time of the troubles - and, interestingly, with Jim Norton again and centrally, as Brodie to Brian Cox's well-intentioned Kerrigan), makes Sheridan much more than a one-dimensional figure of self-interest in utilizing police, the landed classes and even the visit of The Papal Legate, Cardinal Lorenzo Lauri, and the 31st Eucharistic Congress to further his aims : whatever arm-waving his fellow priest Father Seamus (Andrew Scott) may make, it is he, though not wavering from his opposition, who comes to a grudging respect for Jimmy’s courage.


Laverty’s story-telling also makes us work, needing to listen to what else is said in passing, and giving us, without compromise, the politics of the 1920s and 1930s, following the end (of which captions told us) of The Civil War : the world that he shows has a vivid disconnection between the rule of law (represented by the court and its judgements) and what happens when power is exercised on the ground, but concertedly coming together in the closing scenes. Just as with the earlier films referenced (in particular Land and Freedom (1995)), we may not exactly follow the ins and outs of the political machinations, but we see again the broad thrust of unholy alliances, betrayals, and seeking self-determination.


At the centre of this world, for part of the time and offering hope (as does the enthusiasm of Marie (Aisling Franciosi)), is Oonagh (Simone Kirby), and our piecing together her story, in the context of the reasons for Jimmy’s absence and return. In particular, the heightened reality of the moonlight scene - if one surrenders to it - is electrifying, and part of the sure use of light in this film***, as also when Jimmy sets foot in the building, and starts opening the shutters. At one point soon after, not necessarily through our inattention, but seemingly in a wish to show how little separates the two initial time-periods, we hesitate, because the subdued colours are suddenly gone (though their brilliance was always suggested by Oonagh’s hat, as she cycles away in the gloaming from Jimmy's homecoming), to say when in time we are.

The credentials of Jimmy’s Hall to be a well-made feature are compounded by little technical things such as sparing use of soft focus, but varying the depth of field from a tight one (within which faces are brought in and out of sharpness), or a more generous one to encompass the wider sweep of a scene – and the full-throated whirl of the dance (inside the hall, as against outside on the road), whilst letting us imagine that we see Jimmy show us some dance-steps, but doing much of it by suggestion from the waist (or thereabouts) up.

Other hallmarks to notice are the quality of the writing and editing, the extent to which – in the two scenes where there is discussion in the hall – the debate is on multiple levels (as in Land and Freedom), for and against, and how violence (or the threat of it) tinges the hope that Jimmy’s supporters give him, and he finds in Oonagh. The performances from Ward, Kirby, Norton are strong, and committed to the truth of this film as one feels that McDonagh and his crew, led by Brendan Gleeson, are to that of Calvary (2014).

Ultimately, how we respond to this piece of work here should depend less on what Jimmy’s politics (we see him take stock when leafing through a book by James Connolly) may have been than on his principled care for others : though Loach and Laverty present scant favourable view of the likes of Sheridan and O’Keefe, they give enough idea of the complexity of the political situation in The Republic, and, as with The Spanish Civil War (in Land and Freedom), how alignments and changing coalitions not only affect the course of history, but individual human beings.


* Sources : IMDb’s page for Laverty, and Loach on Loach (Faber & Faber (ed. Fuller, Graham), London, 1998, p. 78) in the excellent Faber series where directors talk about their films, broadly chronologically.

About Laverty, Loach says Then Carla’s Song came out of the blue. Paul Laverty, who had been working as a civil rights lawyer in Nicaragua, got in touch with us about doing a script after he had been there [p. 105].

** As deftly assembled as in Spirit of ’45 – or, for that matter, interspersed in the two time-periods of Land and Freedom (1995) (Loach working with Jim Allen, just before starting with Laverty).

*** Several people in the Q&A commented on how well light had been used, and Loach had nothing but praise for cinematographer Robbie Ryan (who is not even given a credit on IMDb's web-page for the film !), who, we were told, had largely used available light (shooting on Kodak stock).

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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