Having pioneered what might be called ‘socialist cinema’ for a long time now, Ken Loach is not going to stop. He’s made some masterpieces over his career, the melancholic and touching ‘Kes’ and the searing Spanish civil war film ‘Land and Freedom’ coming particularly to mind, but he has been known to succumb somewhat to his unapologetic socialist ideals to an extent that can give his work an unwanted didactic quality which can be hard to distance from the film. Indeed, his response to critics that have criticised his latest film ‘Jimmy’s Hall’ of being one of those films has been to encourage a sacking of film critics, arguing that ‘ordinary punters’ would do a much better job. Whether this would actually benefit Loach, a man who has largely been the darling of critics throughout his career, is definitely highly debatable.
The criticisms of ‘Jimmy’s Hall’ are not without at least some merit. From the beginning, Loach’s endearment towards communist activist Jimmy Gralton is clear, and he sets up the church as the clear antithesis of a man who evidently was the darling of all those around him. While this heavy handed approach does convey the tensions that were floating around in Ireland in the 1930s, particularly between establishments like the Catholic church and the rise of communism, it does start to grate when we’re told of ‘glorious freedom’ and are lamented at about the oppressive nature of the church for long enough to make us believe we’re watching some sort of Soviet propaganda. Luckily, the film does manage to get past these elements, and Loach displays his usual talent at building a fine character drama around his charismatic star Barry Ward, who is flawless as Gralton and embodies his struggles to bring joy to the small Irish community wonderfully. The film’s strengths are definitely in its more intense moments, where debates about the extent of defiance against the church and, on the other side, what to do about a man who openly defies authority are raging and tensions come to boiling point. The effect that proceedings have on the characters are the most interesting aspect, and all speeches and heroism aside, it’s interesting to see a community in turmoil as it was at that time, and to get an insight in to the life of a man trying to break the mould in a very unaccommodating time when people’s ideas on togetherness varied vastly.
‘Jimmy’s Hall’ is not Loach’s best film. It’s uneven and can be prone to the aforementioned over-simplifications, but the strengths are there in Paul Laverty’s writing and in Loach’s sense of the story and his convictions in telling it, even if they’re not always right. Taken with a pinch of salt it’s an absorbing tale that not everyone will know, and a tale that definitely deserves to be told, even if it lacks the depth to stick in the mind for too long since it isn’t as clever as ‘Calvary’ nor as emotionally affecting as ‘Philomena’, but it has enough for you to enjoy it and if you get the urge to sing ‘The Internationale’ you know it’s done its job.
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