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A revolt that inspires

Peter Arkell reviews Ken Loach’s new film, Jimmy’s Hall which pits ordinary people’s aspirations against the local landowners and priests.

Jimmy's Hall

Ken Loach’s latest film, Jimmy’s Hall, shows us yet again the wonderful dramatic potential that can be found in the lives and situations of ordinary people as they struggle to lead fulfilled lives against the forces in a repressive society.

In their attempt to improve themselves and have fun, the characters in this film find themselves on a collision course with local landowners and priests who see this as a dangerous revolt against their authority.

Jimmy Gralton, just returned in the early 1930s from 10 years in the USA and looking, he says, for a “quiet life now” helping his mother, is goaded by the locals into re-opening the hall which he had built before his exile.

The hall serves as a kind of symbol for the new force in the community, mostly the youth who flock to it for dance, jazz, poetry, political discourse, boxing etc. Without quite realising it, Jimmy and his followers at the hall have unleashed a spontaneous longing for knowledge and liberation.

That sets up the conflict that follows between the new aspirations of the people and the old ideas of the conservative powers who are used to controlling the behaviour as well as the thinking of the locals, and who resort to every dirty trick in the book to restore their authority.

Jimmy's HallIt is a brief but inspiring revolt, with a defiant ending, all beautifully filmed. As with all of Loach’s films, it is the drama that is primary, the interplay between convincing and well-drawn characters who find themselves in situations that they struggle to deal with and that they often cannot fully understand.

It is the opposite of a propaganda or didactic approach, which he is often accused of, where the aim of the film is to highlight a particular or general injustice and where the characters are often used simply to hang ideas onto.

Of course the films are political, but the politics is not foisted artificially onto the characters or into the action of the film. It is because Loach and his script-writer, Paul Laverty, are socialists that they are able to latch onto and conceive the dramatic possibilities in a society that they see as unfair, corrupt and ripe for change. They take the side of the dispossessed.

The characters in Jimmy’s Hall are convincing and nuanced, particularly that of Jimmy himself – who like all the characters is transformed by the events – played by Barry Ward, a relatively unknown theatre actor, and also of the two priests, one of them played by Jim Norton of the TV sit-com Father Ted.

He breathes fire and brimstone against the “Communist” conspiracy, while the other one is rather shocked by the ruthless tactics employed. But all the characters come across as genuine people, including the community youth excited by the possibilities that the hall is opening up, most of them played by non-professionals.

In a sense, the subject of the film is a flare-up of an old conflict, of the struggle against British rule in Ireland, that was the subject of one of Loach’s earlier films, The Wind that Shakes the Barley. The two films stand together. Both are set in Ireland three generations back, and that fact gives rise to one of the other criticisms of Loach’s recent output: that the predominant strand that runs through his recent films is one of nostalgia for the past, and perhaps an evasion of the new crisis in the society of today.

This criticism is also sometimes levelled at the film he made before Jimmy’s Hall, the Spirit of ‘45 which is a documentary about the events at the end of the last war, the election of the Attlee government, the creation of the NHS and so on.

Both these films resonate strongly with contemporary events, which is a part of their interest for the viewer of today. In the case of Jimmy’s Hall the dramatic content is strong enough for it to stand alone as a fine piece of cinematic story-telling. But they both do also lack the bite and the immediacy of some of Loach’s previous work, such as My Name is Joe.

But that film was made nearly 20 years ago, and we need something for today.

27 June 2014

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