Room is this year’s favourite amongst mainstream critics with four Oscar nominations and many other accolades, including a BAFTA for Brie Larson as Best Actor. It is a major film for both the Canadian and Irish film industries and it is proving immensely popular with its audiences – already established in IMDB’s Top 250 film entries. Its emotional power eventually worked for me but, surprisingly, in a relatively conventional way. I think I was expecting something quite harrowing but it came across as something different.
The narrative opens with Joy and her son Jack living in a small room as Jack’s fifth birthday approaches. It soon becomes apparent that they are prisoners in the room and that Jack was born there and has no experience of ‘the world outside’. I was quite surprised that Jack ‘escapes’ from ‘Room’ (as he calls it) and the remainder of the narrative deals with what happens to Jack and Joy when they are ‘outside’. I’m still thinking through how the two parts of the narrative fit together. I wonder what might happen if one part was considerably longer and the other shorter? But perhaps the narrative needs a balance between the two? Since the original novelist Emma Donoghue wrote the film script it’s reasonable to assume that the balance is correct but perhaps it depends on the audience? As a childless person, I was less interested in the ‘Room’ sequences than in the family melodrama that followed the release of Joy and Jack – although I think I recognise the interesting questions that the incarceration throws up about Jack’s development cut off from experience of everyday life. One of my viewing companions said how much she enjoyed the viewpoint of the child and it is certainly true that Jack Tremblay the young boy who plays ‘Jack’ gives a remarkable performance. Brie Larson as Joy is also good in what is a difficult role but for me the film picked up with the appearance of Joan Allen as Joy’s mother.
Director Lenny Abrahamson moves into the big league with this film. I didn’t see his previous film Frank, but I do wonder if something has changed with Room. I think I prefer his Irish films What Richard Did (2012) and Garage (2007). In all three films I feel a sense of distanced observation, even though difficult emotional situations are being explored. But in Room the approach just doesn’t seem to work quite as well as in the earlier films – perhaps there was some kind of subconscious attempt to be truer to the script – or perhaps young Jack is just too sympathetic a character? Thinking about Room some days after the screening, I also note that we never find out anything about the man who captures Joy. In the book I understand he is referred to as ‘Old Nick’. I didn’t think about this during the screening but making him a ‘non-human’ character is actually quite disturbing.
I did find the dialogue difficult to follow at times. Perhaps I was disorientated by having to sit in the circle of the Hebden Bridge Picture House (because the stalls have not recovered as yet from the flooding over Christmas). I’m usually much closer to the screen. At one point I thought that Jack referred to being “here in America”? There is actually nothing in the film to confirm that it is actually Toronto that is the location of the action. Yet this did seem to me to be a ‘Canadian film’. It seemed calmer, less frenetic than how I might expect a Hollywood version of the story to work out. I liked this – just as I liked the film overall. But I remain doubtful as to whether it is one of the handful of films that deserve honours and rewards (but then I don’t really value Oscars and BAFTAs – they seem simply commercially-driven celebrity events these days).
A reviewer on Radio 4 admitted that when he saw this film he started crying after only a few minutes and didn’t stop until the end. I knew the relatively simple narrative structure of the film before I went into the screening but I suspected that I would fall in love with Saoirse Ronan’s character Eilis early on and that I would be similarly affected. In the event I didn’t blub quite so much but I was duly smitten by Ms Ronan and my critical faculties were definitely hindered by my response to her performance.
If anyone has managed to avoid the publicity, Brooklyn is an adaptation by Nick Hornby of Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel, directed by John Crowley. Eilis is a young woman in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford (Tóibín’s home town) where she lives with her mother and older sister Rose in 1952. With nothing on offer in Ireland she accepts the chance of one of the two escape routes for young Irish people of the time – to go to North America where a priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) has found her a job in a department store. (The other route was to England.) In her Brooklyn boarding house, Eilis is homesick until she meets an Italian plumber, Tony (Emory Cohen), but when she is forced back to Ireland because of a bereavement she falls for a local young man, Jim (Domhnall Gleeson). Will she return to America?
Saoirse Ronan’s performance has already been touted as a contender for an Academy Award. I’m not sure how these awards are really judged. What I would say is that Ms Ronan is perfectly cast and that she has a face that she can transform from blank passivity to the most eloquent display board. She also has the body and the movements and gestures to wear the fabulously ugly clothes of the early 1950s. This is a film for costume fetishists. It also proves the possibilities of digital video, not just in the colours of the clothes but the fantastic detail of the weave of the cloth presented in HD. I’m tempted to say that for me this is a film about casting, costumes and locations (in Ireland and Montreal, doubling for Brooklyn). But clearly it is also about direction, script and performances. IMDB carries useful comments from audiences. The film is seen (not negatively) as an example of old-fashioned, classical filmmaking. The in-joke is that in New York, Tony and Eilis go to see Singing in the Rain and The Quiet Man. Saoirse Ronan is no Maureen O’Hara but she does very well as a ‘real’ Irish girl from 1952. The performances in the supporting roles are terrific. Julie Walters (the Brooklyn landlady) and Jim Broadbent are as good as expected and the two young men do well but I was most pleased to see Eva Birthistle (as the experienced traveller who takes Eilis under her wing on the ship to New York from Cobh) – under-used for me since her wonderful performance in Ken Loach’s Ae Fond Kiss (2004). (I enjoyed visiting Cobh in 2014 where the station has a heritage centre which details the migration experience. At one time a mail train ran from Cobh to Cork and beyond simply to carry letters back from North America.)
If you like romances, Brooklyn is a good ‘un. If you are a fan of the book, the jury is out on whether Nick Hornby has done a good job on the adaptation. I haven’t read the book, but the script works for me.
Jerzy Skolimowski is the Polish director who was a rebel filmmaker in the early 1960s, a young man who went to Lodz film school and tussled with Andrzej Wajda, Andrzej Munk and Roman Polanski. After several Polish features he moved into ‘international’ filmmaking with a series of English language films, including Deep End (1970) made about UK issues but shot mainly in West Germany. Later he moved to Hollywood but his directing career foundered in the 1990s. In 2010 he teamed up with Jeremy Thomas to produce a critically acclaimed international thriller Essential Killing. Thomas is a legendary international producer who had previously produced Skolimowski’s The Shout in the UK in 1978. Essential Killing premiered at Venice and like many of Skolimowski’s previous titles generated awards interest (Skolimowski boasts 22 awards as writer and director from major festivals around the world). 11 Minutes, the next Skolimowski-Thomas production also opened at Venice in 2015 and was again nominated for the Golden Lion.
11 Minutes is a Polish co-production with Ireland. Most of the film appears to be shot in Warsaw with sound recording and possibly some interiors in Dublin. Most of the dialogue is Polish except for English used in one narrative strand. The only thing I can say about the ‘plot’ is that it covers what happens between 5pm and 5.11 one afternoon in the lives of a group of characters in central Warsaw. The group includes an actress who has an appointment in a hotel with an American actor/producer re a new film. Her husband is trying to find her in the hotel. A man sells hot dogs from a cart in the park and a woman walks a dog. A teenager breaks into a pawnbroker’s shop. A couple look through some video porn on a laptop. A motor-cycle courier delivers more than just a package to a married woman. Some nuns wait for a bus. A security guard watches CCTV monitors. An ambulance crew are on a mercy mission. There may be other characters I’ve forgotten. The separate stories are not told in a linear fashion and Skolimowski sometimes goes back in time before he goes forward again. This play with time also includes a cheeky image of time running backwards. The film lasts just 81 minutes, cut down from a 120 minutes original version.
For me, this was a thrilling ride. At one point I thought I was watching some kind of avant-garde film and I searched for the kinds of editing rhythms I remembered from 1970s structural films. Eventually I realised what was happening but I wasn’t prepared for the ending. Somebody who watched the same screening that I attended, at which Skolimowski answered questions, reported on IMDB that they were unimpressed. They must be hard to please. I thought that 11 Minutes was a triumph of editing and the choreography of actors’ movements and camera set-ups must have been very difficult. At the Q&A Skolomowski said that he treated the narrative as a poem full of metaphors and symbols and that like all poems he thought that readers should decide for themselves what the metaphors meant. There was a brief discussion as to what the ‘dead pixel’ on one of the CCTV screens might mean as well as suggestions that there was something supernatural going on. What was it that seemed to make some of the characters look up into the sky? It occurred to me afterwards that the film had something in common with the Argentinian collection of short stories, Wild Tales (2014). The two films have very different narrative structures but both seem in a way to be commenting on something about lives in their respective countries/cultures. A final question asked about the opening of the film and this was indeed interesting. Skolimowski begins with introductions to several of the most important characters by way of what might be considered ‘non-theatrical’ video sources – a camera on a mobile phone, the webcam on a laptop, CCTV in an interview room etc. The rest of the film is then shot conventionally on film or HD. Again, we are invited to decide what this choice of formats means.
11 Minutes does not yet have a UK distributor but it does have a leading UK sales agent, Hanway, so it should arrive here. It will be released in Ireland by co-producers Element Pictures. The film will divide critics perhaps but if you like terrific cinematography combined with excellent sound and great choreography in a whole that challenges your perception of the pace of contemporary city life, this is a winner.
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.)
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.
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.