After the foolish fondness of The Angel’s Share (2012), Ken Loach is back in familiar ground with the story of Jimmy Gralton, who built a community hall in Ireland’s County Leitrim in the early 1920s that enraged the local haves. Also involved with reinstating an evicted tenant farmer, he fled to America for ten years or so, before returning to do the same thing all over again. The heart of the film is expressed in the words of his mother, at the hearing on his deportation in 1933 (the only Irishman ever to be deported from his country): “Why is an old tin hall so dangerous?”
The first cause of all the trouble is that education is the preserve of the church, and Father Sheridan is royally pissed – the hall is a place (the only place) for local kids to learn drawing, literature, boxing, and so on. The priest is also aghast at what a good time they have at their dances – the “Los Angelisation of our culture, as he puts it from the pulpit, before reading a list of names of those who attended the previous night’s revels. This being Ireland however, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century (and a couple of years after out-and-out civil war), there’s considerably more going on than that, although no more than a passing acquaintance with the basic source of the troubles is required, as Loach lays the battle lines out fairly clearly, with a bit of background subtitling at the start; he also keeps things comprehensively simple by showing Jimmy and his pals as a peaceful community who just want to help the kids and have a place to dance, and the church and the local landowners as repressive and malicious.
Loach and long-term screenwriter Laverty do have a tendency to romanticize and demonize the left and right respectively. We’re told repeatedly (by priest, landowners) that Gralton is an atheist and a communist; only late on does he admit to the first, and beyond a wish to privilege community over the individual, displays nothing specific to the second, until persuaded to make a heartfelt speech at the (second) evicted farmer’s reinstatement, and even here he is firmly humanist, rather than firebrand.
One of my colleagues referred to an air of “Disneyfication” and it’s hard to argue, although this is not fatal to the film. Certainly there’s no ambiguous behavior on the part of the good guys, and a very clear sense of unreasonable oppression – a gang of soldiers roughly disrupting a group of sweetly singing ladies, the main bad guy landowner brutally whipping his daughter. As ever, Loach and Laverty get by on righteousness, even if their protagonists are not this time primarily politically motivated – they just want to do something for the community. They do get roped into defending evicted families, but mostly they are simple proponents of traditional Irish cheer and community camaraderie who wish to cause no-one any trouble, or change the world beyond their own little burgh.
This is all fine and perfectly pleasant, but the film also has a rather paradoxical problem in that the ostensible protagonist (certainly privileged by the camera and the story) is so much in fa vour of community (and in various summit meetings, the opinions of others) that after a fairly strong start (Barry Ward as Jimmy is strikingly handsome) he rather fades to grey, and becomes an oddly inactive presence at the centre of the story. There is a semi-subplot with his old flame Oonagh, now married, but it feels irrelevant – they’re both far too decent for it to provide any conflict, and the wistfulness of their moonlit dance feels less moving than like lip service to an unnecessary plot strand (the scene is rather beautifully shot, however – not something one normally associates with Loach – by Angela Arnold’s regular DP Robbie Ryan).
Not a dissatisfying film then, but a soft and straightforward one, impeccably directed of course, and played with some liveliness by a hearty bunch of peasant faces (Gralton’s old mam, once a mobile librarian, played by Aileen Campbell, stands out, but the kids are notably subpar). The fact that Gralton’s leadership of the Revolutionary Worker’s Group at this time is entirely unspecified, however, is indicative that capital-P politics are less on the agenda than community dynamics and simplification – one lesson of the film is Oonagh’s statement to the kids at the end: “What you’ve learned is in your head forever. They can’t destroy that” pretty much sums up the film’s level of sophistication; given the backdrop of the time (and the it reveals enough to make on want to learn more). It all feels like a soft pedal, and considerably less than that for which one hopes from Loach.
d Ken Loach p Rebecca O’Brien sc Paul Laverty ph Robbie Ryan ed Jonathan Morris pd Fergus Clegg m George Fenton cast Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Jim Norton, Francis Magee, Aileen Henry, Stella McGirl, Brian F. O’Byrne, AIleen Campbell
(2015, UK/Ire/Fr, 109m)