Ken Loach’s Cottage Industry: Jimmy’s Hall

07/01/2015 5:10 AM |
photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Jimmy’s Hall
Directed by Ken Loach
Opens July 3

The latest from Ken Loach, UK cinema’s working-class hero of long standing, takes a misty-eyed look back at Ireland’s Pearse-Connolly Hall, a rural community center that was for a few brief moments in the 1920s and 30s an unlikely oasis of political activism and progressive ideas. Its founder, homegrown communist leader James Gralton (played by Barry Ward), twice found himself in exile for his activism: first to escape the outbreak of the Irish Civil War in 1922, and again in 1933, after being deported for his political activities, never to return.

The script, by Loach’s frequent collaborator Paul Laverty and based on a play by Donal O’Kelly, focuses on the year-and-change Gralton spent in Ireland before that final departure. Though parts of the film rely on the historical record, Loach and Laverty invent a Girl He Left Behind (Simone Kirby) to draw their hero out of his attempt at the quiet life, back into the tumult of history. At the same time, they limit their leads to chaste mutual pining, shortchanging both drama and history in their zeal to preach the spirit of communalism and openness symbolized by the hall. That piety ultimately suffocates the film: virtuous even in his love for another man’s wife, their Gralton lacks any blemish at all on his character, while his antagonists (Jim Norton, Brían F. O’Byrne) are likewise Only Human, always well-meaning no matter how misguided.

Worse yet, for an ostensible paean to the liberating possibilities of radical politics, Jimmy’s Hall is a stuffed shirt aesthetically. Picturesque countryside vistas (shot on location in Leitrim and Sligo, where the actual events took place) and scrupulous period detail can’t overcome the fundamental drabness of Loach’s images, as the personalities of the few memorable supporting players can’t make a dent in the stolid naturalism of the principals. In all, the film offers fewer surprises than a good bowl of oatmeal.

Far from a testament to revolutionary ideals, Loach has crafted a ruthless engine of bourgeois self-satisfaction, a nostalgia piece that narrows and flattens a historical moment rather than illuminating it. There’s more genuine rebellion in Kevin Bacon’s dance routines from Footloose.