Jimmy’s Hall, first look Cannes review: One of Ken Loach's sunniest films yet

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Early 1930s Ireland is recreated in best Hovis ad fashion

Jimmy’s Hall is is one of the sunniest, most optimistic films in the Ken Loach canon. It has some typically bleak elements - families evicted from their cottages by ruthless landowners, class warfare, deportations, domestic violence - and yet it shows the 77-year-old British director’s faith in a younger generation’s ability to overturn its parents’ mistakes.

The story is largely set in 1932/33, a decade after the Irish Civil War whose scars are yet fully to heal.  Communist activist James Gralton (Barry Ward) has just returned home to Ireland after many years in exile in New York.

With encouragement from the local youngsters, he agrees to re-open the Pearse-Connolly Hall. The hall hosts wild parties, art lessons, literary discussions, poetry readings and political debate. A place to “think, laugh and dance,” it brings out the best in the community, providing focus, entertainment and educational opportunities at a time of huge unemployment.

The hitch is that the landowners and the Catholic Church thoroughly disapprove. They fear Jimmy because he is undermining their influence and authority. They don’t like his left wing politics. He listens to ungodly American jazz - Bix Beiderbecke and Bessie Smith - another reason why they distrust him so much.

Early 1930s Ireland is recreated in best Hovis ad fashion. Rugged rural landscapes are inhabited by characters in flat caps and tweed jackets. There is something faintly preposterous about the idealised way in which Jimmy's mother is portrayed. She is homely and courageous - and always ready with a pot of tea, even when the visitors are police officers come to arrest her son.

At times, the dialogue lapses into political speechifying. Paul Laverty's screenplay isn't subtle. Jimmy, very attractively played by Ward, is a good natured folk hero. The priests and landowners are callous, cruel and akin to pantomime villains.

The romantic subplot exploring Jimmy's relationship with Oonagh (Simone Kirby), the sweetheart he was forced to abandon when he headed to New York, is handled tentatively. After all, she has married someone else - and folk heroes like Jimmy don’t break up other people’s relationships.

The ensemble cast in Ken Loach's Jimmy's Hall The ensemble cast in Ken Loach's Jimmy's Hall

The most complex figure is Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), the parish priest. In theory, the Father abhors Jimmy and his hall. In practice, he admires his courage and his commitment to the community. He is both Jimmy’s nemesis and his most unlikely fan.

Loach is sometimes regarded as a dour filmmaker, a social realist who puts polemics in front of entertainment. In fact, right from the start of his career, he has always had a flair for comic observation.

It is hard to forget Brian Glover’s teacher in Kes (1969), presiding over one of the most chaotic football matches in cinema history or the kids heading to the Highlands to steal  malt whisky in The Angels’ Share (2012).

Jimmy’s Hall has plenty of wry humour and carnivalesque crowd scenes. In particular, there is one tremendous, Fellini-like scene in which all the youngsters in the community take to their bikes to protest against the treatment of Jimmy.

Aspects of Jimmy’s Hall don’t add up. The film ends abruptly. Certain key relationships aren’t explained or explored in any depth. Even so, Loach’s affection and respect for his characters is self-evident and he tells Jimmy’s story in a sprightly and very engaging way.

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