I was going to start this post with another moan about Peter Bradshaw, but in this case his review wasn’t that bad, just not enthusiastic enough for me. Instead it was Wendy Ide, now reviewing for the Observer, who was the real culprit. In a paragraph of clichés she sneers at the film for its worthiness and even manages to imply a plot development that doesn’t happen. I know this isn’t an unusual occurrence, but in this case its impact is compounded by the treatment this film got from some UK exhibitors. I mean you, Picturehouses. The Olive Tree was chosen by Picturehouses for its ‘Discover Tuesday’ slot in which a relatively obscure film is placed in selected Picturehouse cinemas for a single showing at 18.00 on a Tuesday. The argument presumably is that this gives an outlet the film might not usually get and it can be promoted as part of a ‘strand’ in the local cinema’s programming. I guess that for some titles this might actually be beneficial – but in several cases the slot has been used to screen a film that could reach a much larger audience who might not be able to get to that single screening.
The Olive Tree is written by Paul Laverty, arguably one of the UK’s most consistent screenwriters whose scripts have graced two Cannes Palme d’Or winners for director Ken Loach. He is also the partner of the director Icíar Bollaín, the most high-profile female director in Spain. The Olive Tree is their second production together after the critically acclaimed Even the Rain (Spain-France-Mexico, 2010). They met on Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995). The Olive Tree is a ‘comedy drama’ that for me was both very funny and deeply moving. It is, as might be expected from Laverty and Bollaín, rooted in observation and social commentary. So, although on the surface this may indeed be a simple story, you don’t have to look far beneath the surface to find the commentary about the ongoing economic crisis in Spain, the anger about aspects of corporate practice and the pain of contemporary social and personal problems. Despite the subtitles, everybody can access the humanity of this film and in any sane film culture they wouldn’t have to look carefully for its single showing in their local cinema.
Many of us love trees. We especially love old trees and this olive tree is perhaps 1,000 years or old or more. (The grandfather in the film claims it is 2,000 years old.) Anything this old and especially a tree which has supplied fruit for the livelihood of succeeding generations of farmers is not just a tree, it is a symbol of a way of life. Consider the destruction of Palestinian olive trees by Israeli settlers in the West Bank – a deliberate act of vandalism in trying to destroy a culture. The situation in the Valencia region of Eastern Spain is not so critical but unbearably painful nonetheless for the farmers and their families. In The Olive Tree, Alma (Anna Castillo) is a young woman working in the chicken shed on the family farm and acting as a carer for her grandfather who has dementia. He now barely touches his food and doesn’t speak but instead wanders into the ancient olive plantation staring at a mound of stones. When Alma realises that he is thinking about the olive tree that was sold several years earlier when she was still a child, she resolves to somehow get the tree back. Unfortunately the tree was sold for €30,000 to an energy company in Düsseldorf – where it has pride of place in the atrium of the company’s HQ. Alma is a resourceful young woman, but the only way she can proceed is by subterfuge, persuading her uncle and a younger driver to ‘borrow’ a truck with a crane and head for the Rhine by telling them a made-up story about an offer to return the tree. It’s a crazy prospect and we seem to be in the fictional world of madcap adventures and ‘feelgood’ films. Laverty and Bollain have the task of making the journey – and its outcome – credible while at the same time entertaining us and making serious social comments. I think they do this splendidly.
At one point I wondered if Laverty’s starting point was his own script for The Angel’s Share (UK 2012) and indeed there are similarities, but The Olive Tree has a different tone and perhaps a broader perspective. One of its strongest themes is about the pain and misery of the Spanish boom before 2008 and the subsequent crash. The family lost its money through investment in a seaside restaurant and the anger about the moneyed classes who survived the bust is neatly encapsulated in a visual joke. The economic and social plight of Spain is also represented by the tree’s sale to Germany – which is the strong Eurozone centre oppressing the weak Spanish Euro partner. On the other hand, the film also acts as a rebuke to Brexiteers as the truck sails along, passing signs welcoming the trio to France and Germany – signs in blue with the circle of yellow stars of the EU. There are no borders, no customs posts, no currency exchanges.
Lying behind or underneath the feelgood road trip and the economic and social commentary is a family melodrama – a tale of repressed emotions. Through the tree Alma is linked to her childhood relationship with her grandfather. She doesn’t speak to her father who has a different set of feelings about the old man. She does tease her uncle but she has failed in her relationships with men nearer her own age. Perhaps the journey is also about addressing these issues. Alma’s difficulties with family and work colleagues are contrasted with her relationships with her female friends and with the women who drive the social media campaign which develops during the truck’s journey. The campaign exposes the energy company’s ecological crimes and focuses on the ‘tree rescue’ as a news story about popular resistance.
So, this isn’t just a ‘simple story’, it’s many-layered. All the performances are good but I especially enjoyed that of Javier Gutiérrez as Alma’s uncle Alcachofa and that of Pep Ambròs as Rafa, his driving mate. The film looks wonderful in Sergi Gallardo’s ‘Scope compositions and sounds great with Pascal Gaigne’s score. It was nominated for four Goyas with a win for Anna Castillo.
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.
The ‘Sixteen Films’ crew have triumphed again, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and chalking up a significant box office success with The Angels’ Share. Sixteen Films as a company was formed by Ken Loach with producer Rebecca O’Brien and writer Paul Laverty to make Sweet Sixteen in 2002, but the partnership between Loach and Laverty goes back to Carla’s Song in 1996. Rebecca O’Brien missed out on that film but she was with Loach on earlier productions going back to Hidden Agenda in 1990. The West of Scotland and Scottish culture has featured in six of the groups films in all (My Name is Joe in 1998, Ae Fond Kiss in 2004 and Tickets in 2005 alongside Carla’s Song, Sweet Sixteen and the current film.) I think it’s fair to say that while the earlier films were all located in a recognisable urban Scotland and dealt with aspects of contemporary urban Scottish culture, none have ‘played’ so openly with ideas about Scottishness (without losing track of a strong central narrative).
‘The Angels’ Share’ refers to the small amount of liquid which is lost during the long process of maturation of whisky. With whisky as the centrepiece and four young working-class Glaswegians deposited in the Highlands, clad in kilts and carrying bottles of Irn-Bru, Loach and Laverty are clearly teasing us with thoughts of Whisky Galore and Trainspotting – as well as several films by Bill Forsyth including Local Hero and Comfort and Joy. Some reviewers seem to think that comedy is something new for Loach. They’ve already forgotten Looking for Eric but, more importantly, they’ve forgotten that dramas set in believable working-class communities often feature comic characters and comic sequences. Ricky Tomlinson, later star of The Royle Family sitcom on TV, started making us laugh in Loach’s Riff-Raff (1991). In most cases, however, laughter in a Loach film co-exists with tears and pain, not least in a film like Kes (1969). And it still does in The Angels’ Share. The difference is perhaps that the obvious pain is contained within the first part of the narrative so that the second part becomes closer to a conventional ‘caper movie’ narrative – and the film’s resolution is quite different in feel to something like Kes. In fact it could almost be described as upbeat.
Outline (no spoilers)
The protagonist in The Angels’ Share is Robbie a young Glaswegian with a violent past, once more in court but this time offered a way out via 300 hours of ‘community payback’ because he is about to become a father and the birth of his child might bring him to his senses. (Robbie is played by Paul Brannigan, a very talented non-professional who obviously has great potential as an actor.) Robbie does try to change, keeping off drugs and trying to avoid fights. He makes good friends of three other young offenders on the programme and forms a bond with his supervisor (the wonderful Jon Henshaw) who is lonely and missing his own family. It is by chance that Robbie discovers that he has a natural talent, a ‘nose’ for whisky, and this will lead him into a seemingly crazy scheme to make money. But to do so, he needs the support of his three willing but not necessarily accomplished fellow miscreants.
The film narrative is cleverly thought through and encapsulates several political observations that we might expect from Loach and Laverty. A 100 minute film perhaps does not have the length to allow the gradual development/transformation of a character like Robbie, who does seem to go from extremely violent youth spaced out on drugs to astute schemer and smooth operator rather quickly. On the other hand, because of its subject material, the film does have the possibility to engage with debates about Scottishness and representation as outlined above and this makes what is otherwise a seemingly ‘light’ comic tale into something else. In interviews, Loach and Laverty have spoken about the waste of young people’s talents and the disease of unemployment in the increasingly unequal society that is modern Tory Britain (and which the SNP in Edinburgh can only ameliorate but not radically alter). Here are young Glaswegians who have probably never tasted whisky, the national drink of Scotland, and who never visit the beautiful landscapes of their own country (from which their own families may well have been ‘cleared’ by rich landowners a hundred and fifty years or more ago). That same whisky (and the rivers and glens used for game hunting) is now valued by collectors who can pay extraordinary sums of money for something created by craft workers who don’t receive the remuneration that is their due. In this analysis, stealing the angels’ share seems a just venture if the proceeds are recycled in the Scottish economy.
One of the most important debates in Scottish film culture focuses on the representation of what is termed ‘tartanry’ – the romantic attachment of a Highland past that is commonly found in Hollywood’s celebration of Braveheart or Rob Roy. In fact, much of the mythology is a creation of romantic novelists and Victorian gentry – and it has little meaning for the Scottish working-class of the central lowlands, whose culture has been derived from mining and heavy industry. Whisky has an ambiguous position in this context – ironically, I read a magazine article on the boom in the Scottish whisky industry only a few days before seeing the film. Unfortunately a new distillery in the highlands will only create around 150 jobs – whereas the closure of factories and shipyards loses thousands. For readers outside the UK, it’s worth pointing out that Irn-Bru, bottles of which play a key role in the narrative are iconic in Scotland as the brand is claimed to be one of the few local products to match the popularity of Coke and Pepsi.
The Angels’ Share was released in the UK and Ireland by the Canadian mainstream distributor e-One. They have followed the usual practice on Loach’s films of a limited specialised cinema release starting with 73 screens. After four weeks the film is still going strong, passing $2 million. It opens this week in France and Belgium where Loach is usually guaranteed a bigger audience than in the UK. The biggest box office winner from Sixteen Films has so far been the Palme d’Or winner, The Wind That Shakes the Barley (boosted by a massive Irish box office response) but The Angels’ Share might top it.
I enjoyed the film very much but I probably need to see it again. There have been the usual silly certification problems about the way that working-class Glaswegian youths use profanities – often as words of endearment as much as hostility but fortunately the film got the ’15’ Certificate it needed. I should warn anyone who isn’t familiar with Loach-Laverty that some of the early scenes are disturbing (and emotional) before the caper elements take over but what follows will I think attract a new audience as well as satisfying existing fans. I’m intrigued as to how an American release will deal with the profanities in the subtitles which will surely happen for that market. Here is the trailer to whet your appetite (it gives away more of the plot than I have done, so be warned):