Category: Irish Cinema

Jimmy’s Hall (Ireland-UK 2014)

Paul Laverty (left) and Ken Loach on set for JIMMY'S HALL

Paul Laverty (left) and Ken Loach on set for JIMMY’S HALL

Watching Jimmy’s Hall was an absolute joy. After reading some lukewarm reviews I was delighted to find that this is a film full of energy and wit as well as great music and dancing – and some serious insights into the repression of collective action in a conservative, rural society. Some critics have discussed it as a ‘minor’ work. Loach himself says the titular hall is a ‘microcosm’ (of the struggles of working people in rural Ireland). I would say that it is a film to inspire audiences with a belief in collective work and community-based art and culture.

Jimmy Gralton was a local hero in County Leitrim in the early 1920s and again in the early 1930s and has become an iconic figure for some on the Irish left with several books and a play about his exploits – which Paul Laverty lists among his sources. Laverty’s script is ‘true’ to all the public aspects of Gralton’s story but elements of his private and personal life have been invented to suit the construction of the narrative. The film opens with Gralton’s return to County Leitrim in 1932 some ten years after he left for New York as one of the ‘anti-treaty’ losing warriors in the Irish Civil War. Now, one of the other ‘losers’ Eamon de Valera is heading a new government in the Free State and Gralton believes he can return safely. As soon as he is home he begins to hear pleas that he should re-open the community hall (the Pearse-Connolly Hall named after two Republican heroes) built by local voluntary labour on the Gralton family’s land. (Flashbacks then show us the hall being built.)

The local priest making a note of all the locals attending 'Jimmy's Hall' – so he can denounce them from the pulpit!

The local priest making a note of all the locals attending ‘Jimmy’s Hall’ – so he can denounce them from the pulpit!

A typical Loach-Laverty scene – the community who run and use the hall discuss their plans for collective action.

A typical Loach-Laverty scene – the community who run and use the hall discuss their plans for collective action.

Gralton’s home is in one of the least-populated counties in Ireland (50,000 in the 1930s – a third of what it was at the time of the famine in the 1840s but nearly three times what it is now). There is no work and little to do – young people especially want to revive the dances, boxing gym and poetry and art classes. The hall re-opens and life improves but Gralton has enemies and it is this opposition that has attracted Laverty and Loach to his story. The opposition is led by the Catholic Church and the landowners – and also by the right-wingers from the pro-treaty IRA. Loach and Laverty have acknowledged that film is certainly linked to The Wind That Shakes the Barley. As Loach argues, after a colonial struggle any newly independent country can change its flag and ditch the trappings of imperialism but it’s much more difficult to change who has status in the community and who has control over what happens. Jimmy Gralton discovers that the old enemies are still in power. This is neatly summed up in a typical Loach-Laverty scene when the priest and the landowner meet to scupper Gralton.

In some ways, Jimmy’s Hall has a similar address to audiences as the Loach-Allen film Land and Freedom (1995). We know Gralton can’t ‘win’ – Loach is not a romantic and his films are rooted in historical accuracy (though not a history recognised by right-wingers). But what films like this do offer is a sense of the right way to organise, the possibilities of collective action, the pleasures of working (and playing) together and a clear analysis of what the enemy is up to. The strength of the film is that the priest is at once an oppressor, but also a thinking man who respects Gralton as an enemy. It’s interesting that the crucial ‘lever’ that the priest uses is to denounce American jazz and blues as the ‘devil’s music’. All kinds of metaphors are wrapped up in this stance – and the fact that Gralton brings in jazz to play alongside traditional Irish music, including music for dancing. The tragedy is that the reactionary forces in rural Ireland were set up to triumph over collective action. This is an important historical lesson that I hope younger people are able to learn from.

The Cannes Press Conference for Jimmy’s Hall is interesting in terms of Loach’s thoughts on what cinema can achieve. I think he would agree that young people in rural Ireland in particular were stifled by the Church up to at least the 1980s but that since then the international corporations with their movements of capital that first built up and then knocked down the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy have taken over as the oppressors. In case all of this sounds like hard work I should add that Laverty has created a ‘secret romance’ between Gralton and the woman he left ten years ago and who is now married with children. Simone Kirby plays Oonagh delightfully and she and Barry Ward as Jimmy make a handsome couple.

A romantic moment in this warm and uplifting film.

A romantic moment in this warm and uplifting film.

Jimmy’s other love is his mother. So far I haven’t managed to find out who the actress is (or perhaps she is one of Loach’s non-actors?) Either way she is terrific, as are all the other cast members. I saw the film a second time on a trip to Ireland. I was worried that a second viewing might reveal flaws, but I enjoyed just as much, if not more so. Rumours circulated before Cannes that this would be the last Ken Loach fiction feature. Ken is 77 now and losing the sight in one eye (see Danny Leigh’s interview in the Guardian). A major feature is tiring and stressful but I hope he can make another one. If he can’t, I think Jimmy’s Hall is a good swansong. Ignore gainsayers, this is the goods. More reviews of Ken Loach et al to follow.

The Stag (Ireland 2013)

The group in despair watching the carefree antics of The Machine. (From left) Andrew Scott (Davin), Michael Legge (Little Kevin), Andrew Bennett (Big Kevin), Brian Gleeson (Simon) and Hugh O'Conor (Finnan)

The group in despair watching the carefree antics of The Machine. (From left) Andrew Scott (Davin), Michael Legge (Little Kevin), Andrew Bennett (Big Kevin), Brian Gleeson (Simon) and Hugh O’Conor (Fionnan)

I’m not sure If I can make a full analysis of this film. If it had been a Hollywood film with the same outline synopsis I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it. I haven’t seen any of the Hangover films or any of the so-called ‘bromance’ comedies. What I have seen are some of the interesting spin-offs or alternatives/commentaries on the Hollywood titles such as Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz with Seth Rogen and the distaff version of a ‘stag’ film, Bridesmaids. Does this qualify me? I’ll leave that to others to decide. What it does mean is that the tropes of a ‘male-bonding’ comedy involving a reluctant bridegroom on his stag weekend are not so familiar that I couldn’t find anything fresh in them in this film. I enjoyed the film because I found its dialogue to be witty, its characters to be relatively new to me and the occasional references to contemporary Irish society informative. It does get rather sentimental at the end, but I can forgive that in a film which made me laugh out loud several times.

The reluctant bridegroom is Fionnan a rather precious young man who works as a theatre set designer. His bride to be, the rather more lively Ruth, is determined to send him off on a stag weekend. There are two odd aspects of this. The best man she has to persuade to organise the stag is her ex-boyfriend (and Fionnan’s best friend) Davin and her central condition is that her brother ‘The Machine’ must be on the stag. Davin is a university lecturer (in history?) and seemingly long-suffering. He doesn’t want The Machine along and proposes an alternative stag – a hike in the hills of County Wicklow, ‘bonding’ with nature and Fionnan’s other friends, a gay couple and a mild-mannered business type. Inevitably, The Machine turns up despite Davin’s best efforts to keep him away and the bonding with nature becomes a rather different experience. The script is by the writer-director John Butler and the best-known of the actors, Peter McDonald, who plays The Machine. It’s a script that has great potential but perhaps needed more work on its subplots. It doesn’t need to be longer but the number of sub-plots could be reduced and the remaining ones given a little more depth. Overall, however, as one Irish reviewer put it we do get to explore something about “the target of contemporary Irish masculinity – in all its post-Tiger, post-modern, metrosexual complexity”. The Machine’s seemingly loutish pranks do, of course, have a potentially positive outcome in puncturing some of the pomposity and hypocrisy which exists around the generally good-natured group. The film looks good and the scenery is lovely – the references to U2 are the only alienating factor for me.

The Irish Film Board backed the production and it is a completely ‘local’ film. UK audiences may recognise Andrew Scott (Davin) as Moriarty from the recent Sherlock TV series. Peter McDonald has been in many UK theatre and TV productions as well as several films in Ireland and the UK.

(In the US, the title of this film has been changed to ‘The Bachelor Weekend‘)

UK trailer:

Silence (Ireland 2012)

The landscapes of the west of Ireland captured in sound and image . . .

The landscapes of the west of Ireland captured in sound and image . . .

Silence is a rare example of a genuine ‘art film’ on a standard specialised cinema release (a seemingly contradictory description, but I can’t think of a better way of putting it). The film directed by Pat Collins and written by Collins and Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde, who is also the lead actor, has only a vestigial narrative. This involves an Irish sound recordist, currently living in Berlin, who accepts a job requiring him to record the sound of wild places devoid of human-created sounds. The recordist finds himself returning to Ireland and ultimately to the islands off the coast of Donegal where he grew up as a child. The idea as I understand it was to riff on the idea of folklore recordists/collectors who visited the west of Ireland in the 1930s/40s.

I suppose that Silence is a ‘road movie’ of sorts, but only if the narrative structural elements are the main criteria for generic definitions. The film is mostly concerned with visual and aural poetry. It’s effectively an ‘essay film’ in which the filmmakers explore the potency of landscape and how it can be represented through sounds in relation to concepts of family history, exile and migration. Nothing is stated directly. Instead we are offered the recordist’s (mumbled) conversations with a variety of characters he meets on his travels up the west coast of Ireland intercut with some archive footage and the sparing use of music, mainly traditional and classical. The key song appears to be the haunting Sandy Denny performance of her own ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ which appears briefly in the film and then plays through the end credits.

Silence was shot by Richard Kendrick on a RED digital camera using vintage Russian Lomo lenses for an anamorphic image presented in CinemaScope. The lenses soften the image and give it a specific texture that combines with the emphasis on natural sounds of wind, sea, birdsong etc. The slow pace prompts the audience to listen carefully to the soundscape. The sound recording approach from Éamon Little and John Brennan was influenced by the work of Chris Watson (featured in David Attenbrough’s natural history programmes). At times the editing of sound and image is pushed to the fore with overlaps of voices and images and conversations drifting in and out of synchronised sound. This is discussed by editor Tadhg O’ Sullivan in the Press Notes. O’ Sullivan knows Pat Collins well and in fact most of the ‘actors’ in the film play themselves. Collins is a documentary-filmmaker exploring his own (and Mac Giolla Bhríde’s) feelings about the landscapes of the west of Ireland and the stories of the people who have left.

Eoghan in the little local museum on Inisbofin.

Eoghan in the little local museum on Inishbofin.

The west of Ireland used to be one of the most populous parts of the country up until the great famine of the 1840s.  Many people emigrated in the 19th century but a long slow decline then followed which seems to have now abated with some settlement by individuals looking for peace and solitude. But young people still find it difficult to get work and many have to leave. One of the poignant moments in the film sees Eoghan visiting a young woman in Inishbofin who has set up a local museum in an old storehouse. She speaks about going to boarding school and returning home to experience the coming of electricity to the island (which actually arrived in 2002).

I enjoyed the experience of watching the film in a cinema. It needs patience, close attention and lack of distraction to appreciate all its nuances. I would have found it difficult to watch on DVD and so I’m glad it got into theatrical distribution.

Byzantium (Ireland/UK/US 2012)

byzantium-uk-banner-poster

Neil Jordan new film (2012) revisits the vampire territory that he explored in the 1994 Interview With a Vampire. Like that film this offers a distinctive take on the genre. This is down in great measure to the script by Moira Buffini adapted from her own play. She clearly has a taste for the gothic, having also adapted Jane Eyre in 2011. Jordan’s output is closer to film noir, including frequent femme fatales. This offers the most distinctive feature of Byzantium, the central and strong female characters of Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan). Clara is a vital sexually dominant character, played with relish by Arterton. Ronan as Eleanor is suitably restrained as a moody and rather fragile teenager. By comparison the men, human or undead, are somewhat pallid in comparison. The June Sight & Sound had an article by Kim Newman who traces the film vampiric lineage in Deadly is the Female. None of the titles he mentioned seem to have a woman with as much panache as Clara.

The film also has distinctive settings: one of the contributions by Jordan. We cut between a run-down English seaside town [actually Hastings] and a barren Irish landscape [the Barra Peninsula]. Visually the film is a real pleasure. We alternate from forbidding and mysterious landscapes, to the washed out neon-lit resort, and moments of vivid colour as the victim toll mounts.  The transformation from human to undead is both impressive and distinctive.

The plot brings together a variety of strands from vampiric literature and C19th melodrama. Some of this is deliberately over the top, and whilst there are surprises some of the mechanics are signalled well in advance. The title Byzantium seems to be a rather arbitrary inclusion with a link to the early medieval world.

I watched the film at the Vue Cinema in central Leeds. The foyer proudly informs patrons that all the projectors are 4K; however, they neglect to provide any information about whether the DCPs are 2K or 4K. I remember a profile of the Chief Executive of Vue in The Guardian, where he said he was ‘passionate about film’. His cinemas need a little more of this. The film was screened in 2.35:1 though the masking remains as for 16:9 [one of the oddities of this cinema is the aspect ratio of the screens]. And I do not remember any warning about ‘mobile phones’ before the screening commenced. Sure enough, just as we started the climatic sequence one lit up in the row in front of me. Vampires in Byzantium have a really impressive nail on the index finger: I would have traded for one at that moment.