Release Date: 30th May 2014
Running Time: 109 minutes
Director: Ken Loach
Starring: Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Andrew Scott, Jim Norton
When a beloved director decides to hang up their hat after decades of filmmaking, it is always a bitter-sweet occasion. Earlier this month saw animation legend Hayao Miyazaki retiring with his swan song The Wind Rises, and now British film stalwart Ken Loach claims that Irish drama Jimmy’s Hall will be his final film. His influence on British cinema is unparalleled; from Cathy Come Home in the mid 60s raising awareness of social injustice (and going on to inspire the creation of the homeless charity Shelter) to 2012’s The Angel’s Share, Loach’s films have captured the hearts of many, but thankfully without the whiff of commercialism. Throughout his career he has continually given a voice to the voiceless; those who have stood up to authority and bullying despite the consequences. Returning to the backdrop of early 20th Century Ireland after 2006’s Palme D’or winning The Wind that Shakes The Barley, Jimmy’s Hall treads familiar ground as our hero once again remains the victim of institutionalised prejudice.
Set both during and after the Irish Civil War in the 1920s, Jimmy Gralton is much loved in his rural Irish community for bringing together folk of all ages in a local hall where they can learn, dance and let off some steam. A known communist, his activities are the bane of the Church, and the father preaches about the ungodly antics taking place within his parish. After fleeing the country to New York fearing for his safety, he returns to find the locals desperate for the freeing solace of the hall once again, only to find himself coming up against the same prejudices he faced a decade previous.
Loach clearly has a fascination with internalised conflicts; both The Wind that Shakes the Barley and his Spanish Civil War drama Land and Freedom find a personal angle to a much bigger story. Jimmy’s Hall works in a similar way, although there are times where it feels disappointingly flat and frustratingly on the nose. Jimmy himself is all handsome, blue eyed charm; men and women hang on his every word as he waxes lyrical about poetry and brotherhood. However he never quite manages to win over the audience; we are undeniably on his side, but are reluctant to fall quite so head over heels for his charms. It feels more than a bit hagiographic in its clear reverence for its lead character, which is off-putting as he’s not quite the likeable but believably flawed man we’d like him to be.
There is still a lot to like, however. Over the years the dream team of Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty have produced work that feels like a genuine labour of love and care, and as such it’s difficult to overly dislike much of their output. Their use of inexperienced and relatively unknown actors grounds a lot of their work in reality, and once again there are some exemplary performances on display here. The stand out is undeniably first-time actress Aileen Henry as Jimmy’s mother, providing the heart of the story where Jimmy perhaps fails to. Most of all, it reminds you that no-one does British working-class drama quite like Ken Loach. Far from the “poverty porn” his films sometimes get lumped in with, Jimmy’s Hall has just the right balance of righteous anger and bitter-sweet joy which has come to mark so much of his output. If this is indeed his last film, it may not be his best, but it feels like an acceptable send off.