Last dance: Barry Ward and Simone Kirby in Jimmy's Hall by Ken Loach
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Emotional blackmail on the Emerald Isle: Jimmy’s Hall by Ken Loach

Jimmy’s Hall returns Loach to early-20th-century Ireland, the site of a previous success. The new film could be called The Wind That Shakes the Barley IIThis Time It’s Heart-Warming.

Ken Loach in his heyday was tough and uncompromising, so it’s odd that he has inspired so many films with runny centres (Brassed Off, The Full Monty, Billy Elliot). His best work – Kes, Family Life, Raining Stones, My Name Is Joe – has a knack for expressing tenderness and hope without pretending that those qualities alone will make everything peachy. But Jimmy’s Hall proves that Loach is more than capable of making his own runny-centred movies. It is less a portrait of the Irish communist leader Jimmy Gralton than a big, dopey kiss blown at him. Unconditional love is a joyous thing when extended from a parent to a child. Between a film-maker and his subject, it is more problematic.

Jimmy’s Hall returns Loach and his long-time screenwriter Paul Laverty to early-20th-century Ireland, the site of a previous success of theirs. The new film could be called The Wind That Shakes the Barley II: This Time It’s Heart-Warming. The battle here is not between the emergent IRA and the British but between Gralton and the Church, which is vehemently opposed to him establishing the Pearse-Connolly Hall as a social and educational centre for his community.

As the film begins, Gralton (Barry Ward) is returning home to County Leitrim from New York, where he fled to a decade earlier to avoid arrest. The hall’s dilapidated interior is now good for nothing except acting as a trigger for damp-eyed flashbacks to a lovelier time.

But what’s this? The local youngsters, firebrands to a girl and boy, have heard tell of the hall and its liberating philosophy. They’re bored of knitting flat caps and tank tops from twigs, or whatever it is they do to pass the hours. They want to dance, recite poetry and box, though presumably not at the same time. They implore Jimmy to open the hall again. The twinkle in his eye will be familiar from every film in which someone has ever decided to put the show on right here or get the band back together to save the llama sanctuary from foreclosure.

Jimmy’s chief antagonist is the parish priest Father Sheridan, played by Jim Norton with beady-eyed relish and wit. It is only a minor hindrance that Norton played Bishop Brennan in the sitcom Father Ted. Viewers for whom the episode “Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse” remains a source of ongoing joy may find it hard not to call for the same to be dished out to Father Sheridan. Some distraction comes from the old-school movie-star panache of Barry Ward, who looks like Aidan Gillen might if he wanted to caress you in your sleep, rather than kill you.

Laverty admits that much of the film is speculation – Jimmy’s sweetheart is one of several characters to have sprung from the screenwriter’s mind. What’s difficult to stomach is the level of emotional blackmail. Though there is grudging respect towards Jimmy late in the day from the clergy, generally those who disagree with him are unfeeling brutes. Even the violent raids on the hall are staged with a curious sentimentality. The police are always bursting in during Gaelic singing lessons or dancing classes to slap women to the ground. They never seem to call when the boxing is in full swing.

If his opponents are sadists, Jimmy is nothing short of saintly. Hungry for character flaws, you may alight upon the scene in which his mother complains that she can’t see well enough to sew his shirt. Jimmy walks over and pokes the cotton through the eye of the needle, then hands it back to her. A true hero would have said: “I’m a grown man, Ma. I can sew my own clothes, so I can.” But that’s the closest the film gets to admitting that Jimmy is as fallible as the rest of us. Those looking for a bit more balance and a good deal less soppiness are unlikely to be placated by the revelation: “Communist leader in ‘never helped mum with housework’ shock!”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump