'Jimmy's Hall': Cannes Review

'Jimmy’s Hall,' Ken Loach (Competition)
Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

Ken Loach is as much a part of Cannes as rude waiters and expensive cocktails. The British social realist marks his 12th competition entry with Jimmy's Hall, having won the Palme d’Or in 2006 for The Wind That Shakes the Barley and a jury prize for 2012’s whisky heist film The Angels’ Share. Loach has recently gone back on his pledge that this will be his last narrative feature, but in any case Jimmy's Hall seems vintage Loach: the tale of Irish Communist leader James Gralton, who was exiled during the Red Scare of the 1950s. (Sales: Wild Bunch)

Loach's underwhelming return to interwar Ireland is more corn than 'Barley.'

Ken Loach's Irish-set period drama starring Barry Ward is his 12th Palme d'Or contender from 23 features.

Reports of Ken Loach's "retirement" have been greatly exaggerated -- which is welcome news, as the frustratingly inert Jimmy's Hall would have been a bathetic end to such an important and inspirational career. Dealing with Irish political and social matters in the aftermath of the early 1920s civil war by focusing on the only Irishman ever to be deported from his homeland, the U.K.-Ireland-France co-production can be plausibly marketed as an informal follow-up of sorts to Loach's 2006 Palme d'Or winner, The Wind That Shakes the Barley.

But while such comparisons certainly aren't to the new film's advantage, Loach's Cannes contenders -- he's had a record dozen films in competition -- tend to come away with some kind of prize. Such recognition would help boost the box-office appeal of a picture that has certain audience-friendly elements, but will likely find favor mainly among the director's diehards -- especially in reliably Loach-loving France -- and older patrons.

CANNES REVIEW: 'Foxcatcher'

One of few internationally lauded filmmakers able to consistently articulate and defend a coherent left-wing perspective across a large body of work, Loach is an unquenchable radical in spirit whose big-screen output has long been conventional, even conservative, in its approach. Jimmy's Hall is as impeccably well-appointed as it is palpably well-intentioned, a product of genuinely old-school craftsmanship. According to cinematographer Robbie Ryan, it's one of the very last movies to be manually edited on a Steenbeck (Pixar helped out by donating their full stock of edge-numbering tape) and was one of the very last movies to be shot on Kodak 35mm stock -- not that many venues will be able to screen it from a print.

At this late-autumn stage in his career, of course, no one expects Loach -- who recently scuppered bow-out talk by confirming that he could yet make a "smaller scale, contemporary drama" -- to embrace stylistic innovation. And there's much to be said for presenting essentially incendiary material in an accessible fashion. But now for the first time his ongoing collaboration with scriptwriter Paul Laverty, Loach's studiously safe-hands approach -- typified by regular collaborator George Fenton's near-incessant score -- can't counterbalance fundamental screenplay flaws.

Laverty uses the basic facts of James Gralton's rollercoaster, Atlantic-hopping life -- also the inspiration for Donal O'Kelly's musical play, Jimmy Gralton's Dance Hall -- to spin an oft-threadbare yarn that hits various predictable notes with plodding dutifulness. He renders a complex historical situation in broad strokes, giving only a sketchy impression of the wider social context.

The bulk of the action takes place in 1932, when Gralton has returned to his native farm in rural Country Leitrim after a decade in the United States. Now an American citizen, Gralton -- long renowned for his involvement with Irish Republican causes -- says he wants "the quiet life." He reopens the dance hall ("just a tiny little hall, in a country bog") he'd built and operated before his earlier departure. The space becomes a community center where local youth can gyrate to the latest American jazz courtesy of a newfangled gramophone; where classes in art, literature and boxing are taught; and where opposition to various social injustices starts to crystallize. Land reform is a particular source of discontent in a country gradually emerging from British rule toward full-blown independence.

REVIEW: 'The Homesman'

Soon his grassroots brand of activism brings him into conflict with the local bigwigs. Gralton's powerful enemies include the squire-like O'Keefe (Broadway star Brian F. O'Byrne, underused), whose teenage daughter Marie (Aisling Franciosi) is among the hall's most enthusiastic patrons: "We want to dance, Jimmy!" she persuasively yelps. Village priest Father Sheridan (Jim Norton) proves an even more daunting foe, inveighing in his pulpit against Gralton's "anti-Christ" shenanigans. While O'Keefe is simply a one-dimensional, whip-wielding villain, Sheridan is by a country mile the most intriguing and nuanced character on view. His doctrinaire stiffness gradually yields to shades of doubt, even grudging admiration toward the pesky rabble-rouser in his midst -- one whom his subordinate (Andrew Scott, also underused) dismisses in a hostage-to-fortune line as a "lightweight maverick."

Sheridan's two-handers with Gralton generally bring out the best in Laverty's writing, apart from one implausible and histrionic third-act confrontation in Sheridan's confessional. But Norton is never anything less than a flinty, movie-stealing delight as the doughty padre with a voice of black-velvet Guinness richness, the actor reuniting with Loach some 24 years after a rather more provocative exploration of politics on this turbulent island, Hidden Agenda.

While that film audaciously stuck its fist squarely into a still-buzzing beehive of controversy, it's hard to imagine anyone -- even the Church -- being roused to anger by anything in Jimmy's Hall. Loach and Laverty's softly spoken, raffishly handsome Gralton is an unambiguously sympathetic protagonist ill-served by circumstances, one who sees "misery in a land of plenty" and is determined to make a change. Previously best known for TV work on either side of the Irish Sea, Ward exudes a certain shaggy-wolfhound charisma as a man who, if the chips had fallen differently, could perhaps have made as much of a mark on his country as Pearse and Connolly, the Easter Rising martyrs after whom he named his hall.

However, Laverty tends to soft-pedal Gralton's more firebrand revolutionary ideals and places at least as much emphasis on a steadily simmering, ill-starred (and entirely fictional) romance with old flame Oonagh (Simone Kirby). But, like so much else in Jimmy's Hall, this crucial aspect of the story stubbornly refuses to come to life. What we're left with is an odd, only fitfully engaging hybrid of The Quiet Man and Footloose, which neither packs much of a punch nor is particularly nimble on its feet.

Production company: Sixteen Films
Cast: Barry Ward, Jim Norton, Simone Kirby, Francis Magee, Aileen Henry, Andrew Scott, Brian F. O'Byrne
Director: Ken Loach
Screenwriter: Paul Laverty
Producer: Rebecca O'Brien
Executive producers: Andrew Lowe, Pascal Caucheteux, Gregoire Sorlat, Vincent Maraval
Cinematographer: Robbie Ryan
Production designer: Fergus Clegg
Costume designer: Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh
Editor: Jonathan Morris
Composer: George Fenton
Sales: Wild Bunch Paris

No Rating, 109 minutes