Stephen Totterdell on Ken Loach’s latest.
DIR: Ken Loach • WRI: Paul Laverty • PRO: Rebecca O’Brien • ED: Mike Andrews • DES: Fergus Clegg • CAST: Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Andrew Scott, Jim Norton, Brían F. O’Byrne
Something of a final kick to the head of the church, Jimmy’s Hall channels Ken Loach’s anger into an assault on authority in all its forms. With nods to the Occupy movement and Generation Y’s non-hierarchical power structures, Loach examines the cost of rebellion in a society that mythologises its rebels but rarely supports them. Through references to historical and artistic figures of the time – Joseph Stalin, to name but one – the film reminds its viewers of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. Debord posits that we, the public, view historical events through mediated lenses and come to believe that they exist outside of everyday reality; that they are movies, almost. They never really happened. This creates apathy, because the connection between real social and political struggle and revolution is lost – revolution becomes something inevitable, something that occurs because of a preconceived narrative, rather than an event that is spurred on by the will of the public. Therefore, if there is no revolution it’s because there shouldn’t be one. In truth, it’s because nobody has decided to start one. Jimmy’s Hall reminds us that Stalin was real, not just a myth, that Maud Gonne was real, not just a myth, and that Jimmy Gralton was real.
During the early 1930s, Jimmy Gralton’s act of rebellion is to set up a community hall in Co. Leitrim at a time when the church has a hold on all of public life. The local community can involve themselves with art, music, and dance. It acts as a reprieve from the economic crisis, from the background of emigration and hardship, and is – in a sense – a testament to the value of the arts in times of crisis. The church consider it a threat to decency, and use shame as a weapon to discourage its patrons. The film’s contemporary parallels couldn’t be clearer.
Ken Loach appears to have set himself the goal of making myth visceral, but it’s questionable how much impact his message can have in reality. For a section of the community to be truly revolutionary, as Gralton is, there needs to be introduced to their project a sizeable portion of doubt and cognitive dissonance. By setting his film in the past, Loach himself falls for Debord’s trap a little. The film’s events are easier to swallow if they are taking place in old Ireland. They are more inevitable, less disruptive. For all of its anger, a contemporary story might have been more effective on a political level. As a piece of aesthetic cinema, of course, it remains strong.
One of the film’s great achievements is its nuanced dialogue. I’m reminded of What Richard Did. The speech patterns and dialects, down to characters stuttering or repeating themselves, achieve versimilitude beyond what one expects from cinema. Close attention to the way real people talk is a strength of Irish literature and film, so Loach’s social realist leanings serve him well here. Authentic dialogue helps to thin the line between cinema and reality, but Loach could go further still if he wants to engage in political life.
Jimmy’s Hall excels at demonstrating the cumulative effect of these rebellious figures. It speaks to the power of great oratory throughout Irish history. For example, a committee call on Jimmy to give a speech defending the community hall’s ideals. They insist that it is his personality, his charm, his skills of oration that will make a difference. This brings to mind figures from Jim Larkin to Panti Bliss, and the oft-overlooked importance of these small agitators. In this way, the film’s period setting plays to its advantage, because the viewer feels the distance we’ve covered because of figures like Graltan.
Language of shame runs through the film. When a couple bring their child out into town in the evening, somebody mutters, “That child should be home in bed. Ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” A particularly brutal scene involves a character being beaten by her father for visiting the community hall. Many of the film’s priests use shame liberally, but one young priest – played with vigour by Sherlock‘s Andrew Scott – offers hope and understanding. The message is clear: pay attention to the younger generation.
So by drawing on Ireland’s rich historical and literary heritage, Ken Loach has created a film that serves as both a critique of modern political and economic infrastructures and as an engaging portrait of a rebellious young Irishman. Through excellent pacing and rich cinematography, Jimmy’s Hall touches on the nuanced power plays at work in modern society, and does so in a way that will cause pause for thought in its audiences – if not spurring them to real action.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Jimmy’s Hall is released on 30th May 2014