Interview: Simone Kirby

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Simone Kirby is in good company on the set of Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass in London’s Shepperton Studios alongside the likes of Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman and Michael Sheen. Speaking to Film Ireland, Simone says, “Things are going well. I’ve only done a few days. I’m playing Tyva Hightopp, the Mad Hatter’s Mother – you don’t see his parents in the first movie but we meet them in this one. It’s a great experience so far” – and an experience that is obviously very different from her last cinema role, playing Oonagh in Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall, the true story of Irish political activist Jimmy Gralton, which has been released on DVD and Blu-ray and is the reason we’re chatting.

Looking back gives Simone a chance to reflect on her experiences of the film. I ask her about her memories of how audiences reacted. Simone picks out Cannes and Ireland among her highlights of the film’s reception. “It was really nice to go to Cannes with a Ken Loach movie because they’re such huge fans of Ken’s films over there. And then we came home and did the Irish premiere, which got a great reception. It was great that people who hadn’t heard of Jimmy Gralton before now knew about him and what he had done. That was one of the most satisfying things, to be at the Irish premiere and to be there for people’s reaction after the film. It’s nice to be a part of people finding out who he was and that the movie politically stayed true to who he was and what he did.”

Preparing for the role meant Simone had to immerse herself in the history of the film’s subject matter. However, it was her feet that led the way. Simone  tells me how herself and Barry Ward, who plays Jimmy Gralton, first learned to dance together before going to Ireland and meet up with the rest of the cast. “We then did a lot of history lectures and political debate and went around Leitrim and Jimmy Gralton’s homestead. We all got very well versed in the politics of the time and who the man was and we all read a book called The Cause of Ireland that Ken had suggested to us.” Has she put those dancing skills to use since? “No! I’d love to but I haven’t had the chance. I love the Jive, particularly the Shim Sham. I had done a little bit of set dancing when I was younger, so it was great to revisit that and I’d love to go to the odd ceile!”

Of course, we need to talk about Ken. Simone explains how working without a script and shooting in sequence with Ken worked for her as an actor. “In terms of filmmaking it’s very rare – when we were auditioning we weren’t even doing characters from the film, we were just improvising scenes that Ken was coming up with for him to get an idea of what we were like and who we were. It’s an unusual way of working but really exciting. And then shooting in sequence is very helpful for the actor as well – Ken is very kind to actors that way.” How does that come out in the wash?I think it’s very authentic. And that’s what he aims for. Everything is there at your fingertips. He tries very hard to make it as authentic for people as possible, and that shows on screen I think.

“There’s a lot to be said for shooting in sequence – very often you won’t have played the scene beforehand, so you kind of don’t know what you’re aiming for and if you’ve shot the end of a movie before you’ve shot the beginning there’s little room for movement because you already know where it’s going; whereas if you shoot something in sequence it really helps you to be free to try things out – there’s no consequences because you haven’t filmed the next scene yet. That allows for improvisation and movement and leaves things a bit more open. When you’re playing everything in the moment it’s very real and the stakes are very high all the time. You’re going with how you feel every day. You’re not holding back or aiming for anything because you don’t know exactly what the shape of the film is going to be.”

 
Jimmy’s Hall is available on DVD & Blu-ray from 26th September, 2014

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Competition: Win ‘Jimmy’s Hall’ on DVD

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Ken Loach’s political period drama is available on DVD & Blu-ray 26th September, 2014.

Set in Ireland in 1921 when the country was on the brink of Civil War, the film follows Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward), who has opened a public hall on a rural crossroads where many of the locals hold dances and other community-centred events. However, with the hall’s increasing popularity comes the attention of local politicians and church leaders who force Jimmy to close it down and shortly afterwards he decides to flee the country. Ten years later, as the Great Depression takes its toll across the world, Jimmy returns to his home from the United States to care for his mother. When he sees the effects the Civil War and wider economic downturn are having on the community, he vows to open the hall once more to instill some good spirit into the people’s hearts. But will this decision only serve to exacerbate an already problematic situation?

Thanks to the good people at Limelight Communications, we have a copy of the DVD to give away. To be in with a chance of winning, answer the following question:

Who wrote Jimmy’s Hall?

Email your answer to filmireland@gmail.com by Friday, 3rd October when the Film Ireland Hat will select an answer in a rural dance hall.

 

Jimmy’s Hall is available on DVD & Blu-ray 26th September, 2014

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Podcast Interview: Actors Barry Ward & Simone Kirby – ‘Jimmy’s Hall’

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Ken Loach’s latest film Jimmy’s Hall is set in Leitrim in 1931. 10 years beforehand Jimmy Gralton had built a dance hall on a rural crossroads in an Ireland on the brink of civil war. The Pearse-Connolly Hall was a place where young people could come to learn, to argue, to dream . . . but above all, to dance and have fun. As the hall grew in popularity, its socialist and free-spirited reputation brought it to the attention of the church and politicians, who forced Jimmy to flee.

A decade later, at the height of the Depression, Jimmy returns to Leitrim from the US to look after his mother and vows to live the quiet life. But as he reintegrates into the community and sees the poverty and growing cultural oppression around him, the leader and activist within him is stirred. He makes the decision to reopen the hall in the face of the dangers it may bring.

Stephen Totterdell sat down with Barry Ward and Simone Kirby, who star in Ken Loach’s portrait of Irish communist and activist Jimmy Gralton. played by Ward alongside Kirby, who plays Gralton’s former love Oonagh.

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Jimmy’s Hall

Jimmys Hall: Gralton stands with community members

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.

Stephen Totterdell

15A (See IFCO for details)

108 mins

Jimmy’s Hall is released on 30th May 2014

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Ken Loach at the IFI

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Ken Loach to take part in a public interview at the IFI on the occasion of a major two-month retrospective of his film and television work.

Loach’s work has often had an Irish dimension whether examining the Northern Irish Troubles, either head on in Hidden Agenda (21st May, 18.15) or from a British recruit’s perspective in Looks and Smiles (18th May, 16.00); looking at Irish communities in Britain through characters such as desperate unemployed Manchester –Irish Catholic family-man Bob in Raining Stones (25th May, 16.00), or Loach’s award-winning period exploration of the Irish War of Independence and Civil War The Wind that Shakes the Barley (screening in June). The latter bodes well for his upcoming Irish period drama Jimmy’s Hall (Opens 30th May) which deals with the story of 1930s political activist Jimmy Gralton, and will premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival before its release at the IFI.

Other highlights of the May selection include a free screening of Cathy Come Home, Loach’s daring 1969 exploration of homelessness that proved to be a defining moment in British television and ignited a big debate in British society that helped launch two homelessness charities Crisis and Shelter; the previously suppressed and very rarely seen The Save the Children Fund Film that explored the politics of poverty, class and charities somewhat too controversially (at the time) for the charity that commissioned it; and Kes (5th May, 18.15), one of Loach’s best known works and one of cinema’s greatest and most enduring depictions of childhood.

 

www.ifi.ie/kenloach

Ken Loach Season Part 1: Calendar

Up the Junction (FREE EVENT) 3rd May 12.30

Poor Cow – 4th May 16.00

Kes – 5th May 18.15

Family Life – 7th May 18.15

Ken Loach: Public Interview – 8th May 18.30

Cathy Come Home (FREE EVENT) – 8th May 20.15

Black Jack – 11th May 14.00

The Gamekeeper – 14th May 18.30

Which Side Are You On? 17th May 13.30

The Save the Children Fund Film 17th May 14.45

Looks and Smiles 18th May 16.00

Hidden Agenda + Time to Go 21st May 18.15

Riff-Raff 24th May 16.00

Raining Stones 25th May 16.00

Ladybird Ladybird 28th May 18.30

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Cinema Review: The Angels’ Share

DIR: Ken Loach • WRI: Paul Laverty • PRO: Rebecca O’Brien • DOP: Dariusz Wolski • ED: Jonathan Morris • DES: Fergus Clegg • Cast: Roger Allam, Daniel Portman, John Henshaw, William Ruane

Throughout his long career, which began with Poor Cow all the way back in 1967, Ken Loach has proven himself adept at coaxing strong performances from non-professional actors. With The Angels ‘Share, Loach has once again unearthed a few rare gems among his mainly amateur cast, and the resulting film is a triumphant vehicle for the charisma and wit of these young actors. This year at Cannes, the hopes of British success at the festival lay almost entirely on this film’s modestly-budgeted shoulders, and with previous success with My Name is Joe and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Loach could afford to be confident. Sure enough the film came away with the Special Jury Prize, losing out on the Palme d’Or to Michael Haneke’s Love. However, the venerable Loach would have to admit that the credit for this victory must go to his excellent cast, who have managed to overcome a sometimes uneven script to deliver a film that is one of this director’s most enjoyable in years.

 

As with My Name is Joe and Sweet Sixteen, Loach sets his story in working-class Scotland, this time in the disadvantaged council estates of Glasgow. Robbie (Paul Brannigan) has just become a Dad and is determined to turn over a new leaf after narrowly avoiding a prison sentence for a violent assault. He meets a kindly community worker, played by John Henshaw, who instills in Robbie and his work-shy mates a love of fine Scotch whiskey after a community service group visit to a distillery. After learning of the lucrative rewards to be made in selling rare whiskeys, Robbie and his trio of scallywag friends (Jasmin Miller, William Ruane and the hilarious Gary Maitland) cook up a plan to steal into a Highland distillery to pull off the mother of all rare scotch heists. Here, Loach’s film takes an abrupt turn from his customary gritty social realism to gently zany caper movie. The result gives the film an uneven feel, as the story of Robbie, his girlfriend and baby son is left behind and wanders off into madcap heist territory. Fortunately for Loach, his non-professional cast have such a natural flair for comedy that the audience simply doesn’t care, as we end up rooting for this rag-tag bunch to succeed in their audaciously daft mission.

 

The joys of profane working-class humour are never far from the surface in Loach’s films, but in The Angels ‘Share our protagonist’s clowning and wise-cracking is allowed to come to the forefront. You get the feeling that a professional cast would have nowhere near the same feel for these characters and their spiky humour – only these naturally talented and hugely charismatic non-professionals could believably convey these character’s streetwise cleverness and good-humoured optimism in the face of adversity. Thanks to their excellent performances, (especially those of Brannigan and Maitland, who’s Albert is a great comic creation) Loach’s film is saved from the slightly awkward and cliched nature of its script to become one of his most refreshingly funny and effervescent films.

Martin Cusack

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
The Angels’ Share is released on 1st June 2012


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Route Irish

Route Irish


Dir: Ken Loach • WRI: Paul Laverty • PRO: Rebecca O’Brien • DOP: Chris Menges • ED: Jonathan Morris • DES: Fergus Clegg • CAST: Stephen Lord, John Bishop, Najwa Nimri

When Ken Loach is mentioned, ideas of realism, grit, drama and, above all, fearless filmmaking are conjured. Loach’s last film, 2009’s beautifully resonant Looking for Eric, focused on the personal changes affected by a man taking control of his life, lending insight into a damaged psyche and a fractured nationality. Route Irish continues on this bent, having in its sights the societal changes occurring as a result of Britain’s ongoing involvement in Iraq, focusing, as is usual with Loach, on the personal struggle. For this director, it is the people that matter, and there is so much depth to parts of the movie that it is a huge disappointment to find that, as a whole, it just does not work.

Often criticised for his views on Britain, Loach nonetheless presents an honest portrayal – warts and all – of a nation in crisis and a society constantly on the brink of implosion. The story, here, revolves around Fergus (Mark Womack) and his best friend Frankie (comedian John Bishop), two Liverpudlian proletariats who employ themselves in the protection of contractors engaged in ‘rebuilding’ Iraq. It is Fergus, an ex-army hard-head, who convinces his childhood friend to join him in this dangerous land, where there is money to be made for two ex-soldiers. It ends badly for Frankie, who is killed on the infamous, and titular, ‘Route Irish’, known as the most dangerous road in Baghdad. The majority of the film takes place in Liverpool, as Fergus attempts to piece together events leading to Frankie’s death in Iraq, while he languished drunk in a police cell in England. Guilt, of course, is a leading factor in Fergus’ bull-headed determination to discover the truth, where all is not as it seems, and a massacred Iraqi family provides a link to some unsavoury elements of their jobs as hired gunmen.

The acting is sporadically fantastic, but mostly just passable – although, John Bishop surprises as a likeable and human Frankie, making his death that bit more accessible to the audience. However, the lingering feeling is that Frankie’s death is a little too important in the face of the actual tragedy of both these men profiting from a ludicrous situation in Iraq. An Iraqi musician, (played by Tarib Rasool), helps Fergus piece together some clues from Frankie’s death, and provides some righteous anger in the face of the underlying Iraqi situation, but his efforts end in retribution and fear. Frankie’s wife, (Andrea Lowe), provides the face of the British public – never questioning his job, and keeping a distance from the idea of her husband as a killer in a foreign land.

There is tragedy to be had in many set-ups: some flashback shots of Baghdad under siege, children caught in crossfire; the effect of Frankie’s death on his wife; the entanglement of Fergus and Frankie’s intense friendship. All in all, however, the film plays more like a revenge thriller than an emotive social document – losing a lot of its power, and all of its resonance, in the process. Explosions and gunfire, water-boarding torture scenes and Mel-Gibsonesque reprisals leave the personal tragedies to timidly murmur in the background – certainly not something expected from an eminently realistic director. In the end, the movie plods where it should gallop, and whispers when it should shout. It fails to adequately represent the tragedy of capitalist interest in Iraq, the massacre of innocents, or the more fundamental heartbreak of losing a best friend. Whilst not a total write-off, we have come to expect far more from Loach, and as such Route Irish stands as a disappointing turn from a director that can do far better.

Sarah Griffin

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)

Route Irish is released on 18th March 2011

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqtAwJs0uAw[/youtube]

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Looking For Eric

Looking For Eric
DIR: Ken Loach • WRI: Paul Laverty • PRO: Rebecca O’Brien • DOP: Barry Ackroyd • DES: Fergus Clegg • CAST: Steve Evets, Stephanie Bishop, Gerard Kearns, John Henshaw, Eric Cantona

The history of football on film is somewhat sketchy. For every hit – such as The Damned United, or the sheer insanity of Escape To Victory (a truly unique celluloid occasion in which Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, Pelé and John Huston somehow ended up working together) – there are dozens of terrible attempts to capture the beautiful game on film. Happily, Looking for Eric is a terrific film, the enjoyment of which is only slightly increased by a knowledge of soccer. Like all great sports movies, however, the key is that it actually isn’t about sport at all. In fact, it’s not even about Eric Cantona, although the great man’s charming and amusing appearances do provide the impetus for the story. Looking For Eric is, above all things, a Ken Loach film. In other words, it’s about humanity.

The Eric of the title is not Cantona, but Eric Bishop, the put-upon postal worker hero of the film. Depressed and dealing with the emotional baggage of two failed marriages, Eric is also trying to raise two teenage stepsons and offer support to his own daughter as she finishes college. Eric is dealing with very adult problems while still lost in the mindset of his youth; he agonises over his decision to walk out on his young wife years earlier, and the walls of his bedroom are adorned with Man United memorabilia and posters, the centre of which is a massive Cantona poster. It’s while staring at this poster over a spliff one night that Eric begins receiving imaginary life coaching from King Eric himself.

Initially, Looking For Eric plays like a typical British romcom, albeit an especially good one with a fine ear for realistic dialogue. Steve Evets makes for a likeable, believable lead, and he’s surrounded by a superbly detailed suburbia, from the clutter that fills his house to the pub he frequents with his friends. Loach’s political angle is somewhat sidelined, his socialist views only really given voice in a scene where fans discuss the commercialisation of football. The director seems as aware as anyone else of the irony that the worlds biggest, most corporate football club are taking a central role in his first film on the subject, but he never lets these opinions interfere with his story and characters. Eric’s hero worship seems to exist solely as a part of his state of arrested development; he hasn’t been to a match in years, and there is little mention made of the contemporary United line-up. Even his jersey is a mid-1990s vintage. Yet it’s by re-evaluating his past that he begins to reinvent his present, driven by the philosophies of his hero. It’s witty, engaging stuff, even if you have no idea who Cantona is.

The film becomes even more fascinating, however, when Loach suddenly takes the film down a more serious route. Without giving anything away, the 72-year old auteur’s filmmaking remains incredibly sprightly; one scene is as shocking and heart-stopping as anything a younger British filmmaker might serve up, and the final third of the film lets him tackle the issues facing today’s youth with surprising credibility and nuance. This emotional twist, while exhilarating, means that the comic set-piece that forms the climax of the film feels a little underwhelming. Nonetheless, Looking for Eric remains a fine piece of comedy drama, one that once again confirms Loach as one of Britain’s most interesting and versatile independent filmmakers.

Scott Townsend
(See biog here)

Rated 15a (see IFCO website for details)
Looking For Eric
is released on 12th June 2009
Looking For Eric – Official Website

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