Ken Loach’s 12th feature to be selected in Cannes was also set to be the last he made, though the 77-year-old director has since made encouraging noises about having fuel left in the tank despite his failing eyesight.
It’s heartening news, for though Jimmy’s Hall would have made for a fondly regarded farewell to one of the key practitioners of British moviemaking, the old radical has made better, thornier and more nuanced films, and many of them. It would be nice to think he has at least one more tucked away.
Set in the early 1930s and based on the true life story of Irish community leader Jimmy Gralton, the drama opens with the return of Jimmy (Barry Ward, spry and charismatic) to post-civil-war Ireland after a decade spent in America, riding the economic boom then witnessing the crash.
Back on the family farm in County Leitrim, Jimmy’s approached by a band of youths who urge him to renovate his old corrugated hall and turn it into a place where they can talk, box and study literature by day, dance by night. Jimmy obliges, even unpacking a new-fangled gramophone to belt out some jazz, and thus invokes the wrath of church and state alike.
If that all sounds rather Footloose , it is, albeit without Kevin Bacon swinging from the rafters and playing chicken with tractors. In place of John Lithgow’s fire-and-brimstone pastor we have an a conservative parish priest (“What is this craze for pleasure?”) played by Jim Norton, while Brian F. O’Byrne makes for a cruel, one-dimensional representative of the IRA, now part of the political establishment.
Scripted and shot, respectively, by Loach regulars Paul Laverty and Robbie Ryan, Jimmy’s Hall has a firm sense of time and place and a strong eye for the scenic beauty and languorous rhythms of pastoral life. But the politics are thin, the characters thinner still.
Too often didactic, the film also struggles to balance its energy and warmth (the amber-soaked dance scenes feel like they belong in a Woody Allen period comedy) with its flinty sermonising – quite literally when the priest takes to his pulpit to decry the “Los-Angelisation of our culture”.
Jimmy’s Hall is by no means a bad film and is a step forward after 2012’s flimsy crime-comedy The Angels’ Share . But it is far cry from Loach’s most vital efforts, and also falls short of the director’s flawed-but-absorbing 2006 Palme d’Or winner The Wind That Shakes The Barely, to which it forms a loose companion piece.