It was announced here in Cannes that Ken Loach, who had long mooted this year’s Competition entry “Jimmy’s Hall” as his last film, had at least partially relented (possibly in the face of the general rending of clothes and gnashing of teeth that greeted the suggestion here: Cannes loves Ken), and is thinking of embarking on another project. Good thing too, because “Jimmy’s Hall” would be no great cap to a long, singular filmmaking career–it’s a twee and tweedy period “Footloose,” into which Loach’s trademark left wing sympathies are not so much woven as photocopied and stapled onto alternate pages of the script. The Robbie Ryan cinematography ensures everything looks tremendous, all emeralds and warm browns and autumnal Irish ochers, but it’s a richness and texture that isn’t matched by anything else in the film. Well, okay, the costuming is excellent too.
Based on the true story of communist Jimmy Gralton, the only Irishman ever to be deported from Ireland, the story does have some heady politics at its core, and those instincts, at least, can’t be faulted. But the complexity of the political landscape in Depression-era rural Ireland, ten years after the end of the Civil War, with old resentments still simmering, landlordism still an endemic problem and the Catholic Church exerting ever more insidious influence over the mechanisms of state power (the police and the courts), is not so much shown as told, often in awkwardly polemic speeches poorly disguised as casual conversations between acquaintances. Loach and regular screenwriting partner Paul Laverty, usually a lot more fleet-footed than here, write the dialogue in such a way that its narrative and characterization import sits unmixed next to the politics; attendees at a country dance too shy to mingle.
Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) returns to his native Leitrim from New York where he’s spent a decade working and honing his communist principles. Greeted by his aging mother and his old flame Oonagh (Simone Kirby) who’s now married with kids like a good Catholic, Jimmy resolves to quit his rabble-rousing ways and spends a while indulging in such classic rural Irish pursuits as slinging turf and swapping banter. However when the local young people beg him to reopen the small village hall he had run before leaving for America it first spurs a lengthy flashback to the Civil War days when the hall was a place of such subversive activities as learning and dancing and singing, until Jimmy left, fleeing conscription and arrest. These memories in turn spur Jimmy to rebuild the dilapidated tin shack and turn it once more into a centre for the people of the small community.
But in this endeavor he’s opposed by crusty old Father Sheridan (Jim Norton) the choleric anti-fun priest who bellows “Is it Christ or is it Gralton?” at his cowed congregation, but nonetheless nurses a grudging respect for Gralton’s courage and idealism, and even for some striking workers, comparing them to the first Catholic Martyrs. This could make for an interestingly conflicted, layered character, and yet the script never lets him get there, instead again more often opting for a see-saw, side-by-side presentation of these warring aspects of his personality. Sheridan is part of a coterie of bad guys, who include a local landowner who whips his daughter (for dancing, natch), and members of the local police force who collectively make up The Man, to whom the good hearted locals who just wanna have fun try to stick it. They fail, but they fail nobly.
The performers mostly do what they can with the stilted dialogue–Andrew Scott aka Moriarty in the BBC “Sherlock” has a small role as the junior priest to Father Sheridan but makes it count in one impassioned scene where he makes manifest the self-disgust he feels at sitting idly by and tacitly condoning the more extreme actions taken against Gralton and co. And Kirby and Ward make attractive, chaste but believable star cross’d lovers. But there’s no nuance here, and the authenticity of equally political works like “Land and Freedom” and Palme d’Or-winner “The Wind the Shakes the Barley” is nowhere in evidence, which is too bad because we had a “The Wind That Shakes Its Booty” gag all ready to go. It’s just too difficult to really invest in characters who are either mouthpieces for a particular ideology or straight-up stereotypes: the firebrand radical, the evil landlord, the bumbling policemen, the kids who just wanna dance.
Symbolizing grass-roots community (and therefore communism), the hall is of course portrayed as a place where only the purest instincts would ever be indulged–singing, art classes, reciting Yeats–and the dances, at which arms are shockingly bared and jazz music played with impunity, lead to nothing even as salacious as a stolen kiss. It feels sentimentalized and untrue, this idea of the innate goodness, purity and decency of every member of the community who isn’t a landowner, a priest or another symbol of authority, and at times verges dangerously close to Blarney (and quite an infectious strain of it: while watching a scene in which a policeman strikes Oonagh the note we wrote down was “he fetches her an awful clatter”). This is a film of black and white, good and bad, in which no grey area exists and almost all conflicts are external, imposed from elsewhere. No matter how much we may agree with the underlying argument, this is paint-by-numbers political filmmaking, and Loach is better than that. [C]