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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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred