If “Jimmy’s Hall” was to be Ken Loach’s final narrative feature, as he suggested a few months ago, the activist-minded British filmmaker could go out with his head held high. But at this morning’s Cannes press conference, Loach admitted he’d declared his retirement prematurely, “at a moment of maximum pressure” during the making of “Jimmy’s Hall,” and that he feels differently now he’s come out the other end. “It’s a hard job to give up,” Loach said with a wry smile.
As long as this quiet revolutionary continues making films, there will always be a place for him in Cannes. This festival adores him, and for good reason. He first came here in 1969 with “Kes,” and won the Palme D’Or eight years ago for his Irish revolutionary drama “The Wind That Shakes The Barley.” “Jimmy’s Hall” is set in a similar milieu and thematic terrain to “Barley” but it looks unlikely to repeat that film’s prize-taking feat. When lined up beside “Mr. Turner,” “Two Days, One Night” and even “Timbuktu” and “Mommy,” it can’t help but feel a more minor work.
Nevertheless, it’s a typically big-hearted, attractive, lovingly told effort from the 77-year-old director, covering an embarrassing episode in Ireland’s history. The only Irish citizen to ever be deported from his country without due process of law, Jimmy Gralton’s (Barry Ward) crime was to be an ideological threat to the powers that be. When he imports the Roaring 20s to 1932 Ireland by opening a community dancehall in County Leitrim following a decade’s exile in America, Gralton scares the bejesus out of both the Catholic Church and local landowners, concerned what dance, drawing and poetry classes might be doing to the minds (and, more importantly, hopes) of the rural poor and bored youth. Needless to say, they make it their mission to rid themselves of this “antichrist” in their midst.
Loach’s passion for the story and its characters shine through, even if his gentle approach can’t help feeling underpowered at times. He makes his moral outrage at Gralton’s persecution subtle rather than ferocious. One or two key performances are overly muted, although that’s not a problem Ward suffers from. Whether teaching dance steps he learned in a Harlem jazz club to sneaking into a confession box for a castigating ideological takedown of the choleric parish priest (Jim Norton), the actor, in his first high-profile leading role, impresses as a man of noble idealism willing to sacrifice himself in order to breathe life into his oppressed, war-scarred corner of Ireland. There’s also a tragic love story thrown into the mix in the shape of Gralton’s first sweetheart Oonagh (Simone Kirby), who is now married with children.
While religion and capitalist oppression receive their usual didactic bruising at Loach’s hand, he admitted in Thursday’s press conference that he doesn’t truly believe his films make a huge difference in changing people’s minds, but hopes merely that they add to the public discourse, “the chatter.” “We have to hope films don’t have a huge effect,” he added. “Otherwise we’d all see America as the defender of peace and democracy.”