Jimmy’s Hall (2014)

True story of Irish hero James Grafton, who fought for independence from those colonising his land and thoughts, shows the sickening power of the Church in Depression-era Ireland.

jimmy's hallUK/Ireland
3*

Director:
Ken Loach

Screenwriter:
Paul Laverty

Director of Photography:
Robbie Ryan

Running time: 110 minutes

Although independence is usually cause for celebration, attaining it from a colonial power is often just one struggle waged and won among others, many of which still have to be achieved. To some extent this was also true of the nation of Ireland: Following the at times very bloody Irish War of Independence of 1919–21, the heavily religious population enabled the Catholic Church to play a significant role in the administration of the country, which at times resembled a theocratic fiefdom rather than a fully fledged democratic system.

The infamous case of James “Jimmy” Gralton dates to the early days of the independent Republic of Ireland. Gralton had grown up in County Leitrim in the north of the country, just south of what would become the border with Northern Ireland after the War of Independence. He emigrated to the United States as a young man, returned to fight for his country’s freedom, and subsequently opened a dance hall in his small town, an event that the conservative church found reprehensible, and he eventually had to flee back to New York City when it seemed clear he would be thrown in jail.

After the boom and bust of the 1920s, at the height of the Great Depression, Gralton (Barry Ward) returned to his homeland in 1932. He reconnects with many people from a decade earlier who encourage him to re-open the centre for music, entertainment, learning and art that once carried his name. He decides to listen and even introduces them to jazz, but the Church, in the form of Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), takes matters into its own hands, ultimately leading to unprecedented action against the man who just wanted his fellow villagers to forget their troubles and be happy.

For those unfamiliar with Gralton’s story, the context is provided in two ways at the outset, although there will surely be details, like the name of the hall (Pearse-Connolly, in reference to two of the most famous casualties of the war), that slip past unnoticed. Along with the serene opening scene, set on a horse with cart in the beautiful Irish countryside, the viewer gets numerous supertitles that sketch the political environment of the time and explain the simmering tensions between the loyalists and the Republicans, although a new, slightly less right-wing party came to power in the early 1930s and filled some with optimism.

In the first few scenes, there is also a smattering of flashbacks to the early 1920s, during the heyday of the dance hall that became the thing of legend to those who had reached their teens by the time of Gralton’s return. However, these flashbacks are elegantly preceded by just the right amount of sparse hints in the dialogue about Gralton’s history, and especially his feud with fellow townsman Commander O’Keefe (Brían F. O’Byrne), to set the scene without filling in all the blanks.

“Scars on the heart … take a long time to heal”, says Father Sheridan, speaking as much about others as about himself, and this single phrase sufficiently illuminates the collision course on which he and Gralton find themselves, although the ever-present fear of communism, and of course of losing control, also animates him greatly. The fear is far from irrational, although his reaction to it paints him as a man out to be vengeful and even authoritarian. As is so often the case, in films from The Magdalene Sisters to Philomena, the Church’s callous pursuit of power is best demonstrated through its brutal disregard for the well-being of children, and some of the most powerful scenes in Jimmy’s Hall feature the adults of tomorrow.

Even to those who don’t know anything about this particular episode, or about this period in Irish history more generally, the story may seem slightly predictable at turns. However, it is to the credit of longtime filmmaker Ken Loach that he never dwells on sentimentality too long and provides us with dialogue scenes that are heavy with words but also compelling character development. The character of the priest has to be mentioned here, as his initial black-and-white view of the world becomes slightly more shaded towards the end, making him a far more complex character than we expect, even while his repulsively unsympathetic behaviour remains.

The major issue at the heart of the story, at least from the Church’s point of view, is whether Gralton is about to embark on a campaign of brainwashing that would turn people into crimson-red communists who will follow him, the Irish Pied Piper, away to the Hamelin of a Marxist dreamland. Father Sheridan phrases the alleged attacks on Irish tradition slightly differently, by talking about the “Los Angelisation of our culture”, and he tells his church-goers that they face a fundamental choice: “Is it Christ? Or is it Gralton?”

By demonising Gralton as the Antichrist, he succeeds not only in tarring him with the brush of evil but also in striking fear in the hearts of his congregants, many of whom may not know better than to put blind trust in the words of their all-too-human priest. The consequences are tragic, but Loach is also an inspirational filmmaker who shows us how Gralton’s stay in Ireland seemed to have changed people for the better.

Although this film was widely considered to be the last by the veteran filmmaker, who at the time of release was in his late 70s and had been making films for more than 45 years (his sophomore production, Kes, released in 1969, often ranks near the top of lists of the best British films ever made), his subsequent film, I, Daniel Blake, would go on to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival just two years later, in 2016. 

Brooklyn (2015)

Based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, story of Irish immigrant to the United States in the early 1950s is filled with compassion and tenderness.

Brooklyn_1Sheet_Mech_7R1.inddIreland/UK/Canada
4*

Director:
John Crowley

Screenwriter:
Nick Hornby

Director of Photography:
Yves Bélanger

Running time: 110 minutes

For anyone who has ever moved far away from their parents and their childhood home to pursue new opportunities that did not immediately manifest themselves, Brooklyn will be an evocative, deeply felt (though for some perhaps too optimistic) depiction of the struggles of adapting in a new country, even one as accepting as the United States of the early 1950s.

The New York City neighbourhood that shares its name with the title of John Crowley’s heartwarming film about one of the hundreds of thousands of post-war immigrants represents a world and ultimately a home for Eilis (pronounced “eye-lish”) Lacey, a 20-something girl from rural Ireland. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is bright and dedicated, but she cannot achieve her full potential working at the general store in Enniscorthy, whose generally laid-back atmosphere may have escaped because of the terrible economic climate in the country following World War II.

Eilis’s father passed away a few years earlier, and she is living with her older sister, Rose, who has a job as a bookkeeper, and her mother, who has little financial independence. But Eilis is determined to make something of herself, and thus she undertakes the nauseating journey across the Atlantic, along with so many other Irish immigrants, some first-timers, others returning from a visit to their former home, to New York City.

She settles in the Irish immigrant–heavy Brooklyn, in a boarding house overseen by the strict but witty Mrs Kehoe, played with more than a smidgen of naughty relish by Julie Walters. Father Flood, a longtime immigrant who facilitated her move to the 48 states, secures a job for her at a department store, but when she starts receiving letters from back home, she quickly becomes a homesick duck out of water, turning reticent, introverted and generally down in the dumps.

The film, based on Colm Tóibín’s eponymous novel, is deliberately paced to take her higher when she meets the Italian Tony – a shy young man who looks like a young Gene Kelly (incidentally, the two watch Singin’ in the Rain together at the cinema) and worships the ground she walks on – and achieves enormous success in her accounting studies before taking her lower with an emotional trip to Ireland that makes her question her decision to move to the New World.

Throughout the entire film, the focus is almost exclusively on Eilis, and it would be difficult not to empathise with her plight as she makes her way in a world that, despite it being Anglophone, is almost completely foreign to her. Crowley also subtly hints at the communication difficulties that existed at the time, as a telephone call between Ireland and the United States was a privilege afforded to very few and had to be organised and booked via special channels.

The cinematography, like the story itself, is infused with a sense of romanticism. The images are luminous while retaining a slighty hazy quality, hinting at an almost dreamlike state of mind as Eilis tries to work through her fantasy of living in America to forging her own path. Luckily for her, New York City is almost filled to the brim with good-hearted people who welcome her into their midst – quite a contrast to the refugee-phobic rhetoric of many U.S. politicians and their supporters that is making headlines as of this writing in November 2015.

Unlike other films about Irish immigrants to the United States, such as Jim Sheridan’s brilliant but underseen In America or Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes, Brooklyn is not mired in misery or peppered with unsavoury characters and situations that show the rougher side of adapting to a new country and its people. Crowley’s view of the United States is uplifting and shimmers with compassion for the local population. In a way, the representation perfectly fits the time period perfectly and seeks to present us with a character pursuing the American Dream without losing the connection to her family and community an ocean away. The only truly odious moments take place within the confines of the grocery store in Enniscorthy, but while they have a very important function, they last mere moments before goodness overthrows their fleeting dominance.

With humor, tenderness and a beautiful love story, Brooklyn is a tale that is as optimistic as an incoming immigrant who has not yet experienced the clash of cultures or any hints of xenophobia. Its central character’s determination to start a new life, one that she chooses for herself, is very appealing, and the wisdom she picks up along the way marks her engagement with her surroundings in a way that promises a bright future, despite life moving on and bonds inevitably breaking.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015

This Must Be the Place (2011)

This Must Be the PlaceItaly/Ireland

3.5*
Director:
Paolo Sorrentino
Screenwriters:
Paolo Sorrentino
Umberto Contarello
Director of Photography:
Luca Bigazzi

Running time: 118 minutes

You will be forgiven for thinking This Must Be the Place is a film about a cross-dressing Sean Penn. But if you look past the black nail polish, the lipstick and the eye shadow, not to mention the monotonous high-pitched squeals that pass for his side of a conversation, you come to realize his character, Cheyenne, is a bored former rock star from whom a calmness emanates that can soothe those around him, be they friends of strangers.

He lives in Ireland with his wife of many decades, a fire-fighter played by the always dependably quirky Frances McDormand, but the enormous mansion around him and the estate that extends into a forest-like garden do not thrill him; on the contrary, he seems to be drowning in all the space he owns.

He receives a phone call informing him his father, whom he hasn’t seen since moving to Ireland 35 years before, is on his deathbed; Cheyenne’s fear of flying leads him to take a ship to New York, where he arrives just in time for the wake.

Among the items his father left is a journal filled with pictures and details about his concentration camp warden whom he was tracing and who now lives somewhere deep in the American Midwest. It takes Cheyenne less than a beat to recognize the need to confront this man and take revenge for what he did.

Thus starts a journey filled with strange moments, ranging from a bison grazing on a front porch in Utah and a borrowed SUV spontaneously combusting on the open road to a grown man in a small town called Bad Axe, Michigan, walking around in a superhero costume in the middle of the night, and The Talking Heads’ David Byrne performing their hit “This Must Be the Place” in a New York club while a woman reading a magazine rotates around the stage. The film is filled with these stunningly surreal moments of Americana that all seem to be rooted in reality but are also very removed from out immediate lives; their meaning seems to be very straightforward but at the simultaneously elusive.

Time after time, Cheyenne is right there in the frame to ensure the moment is even stranger. His physique and the sadness behind his facial expressions remind us of Buster Keaton, if only Keaton had donned makeup and styled his hair to look like he had stuck his finger in an electric socket.

The film’s visual style has a distinctly minimalist feeling, though the camera movements are dynamic. Perhaps no film besides The Tree of Life has as many tracking shots for no apparent reason. The shots are certainly meant to be noticed, like when the camera rises up out of a golden wheat field to follow a car passing next to it, and the insistence on camera fluidity becomes irritating as time goes on, because the style is hollow.

This Must Be the Place sets itself up as a road movie of which the inciting incident is Cheyenne’s discovery that his father had uncovered the identity of his former captor. Along the way, schlepping his hand luggage with him everywhere he goes, Cheyenne meets a variety of people that suggest the real reason director Paolo Sorrentino made the film: His focus is the hodgepodge of characters as colourful as the American landscape that produced them, and visually the idea of “a land of contrasts” is hammered home very powerfully with separate scenes in which the television in the background shows Barack Obama and Sarah Palin.

There are many times when Sorrentino’s approach is perfectly complemented by Sean Penn’s acting, as a single-take scene with Penn having a near-nervous breakdown in front of David Byrne clearly shows, or when Penn humours a young boy whose father was killed in Iraq by performing the title song on his guitar.

But Sorrentino’s artistic sensibility, which sometimes skirts the edges of Jarmusch territory, tends to get him into trouble: Arvo Pärt’s exquisite “Spiegel im Spiegel” does not belong on the soundtrack when the scene is a lonely, overlit supermarket aisle, and neither does the climax warrant three consecutive, identical tracking shots of a man delivering a monologue. What follows the monologue, however, is exactly what the plot needed to come to a satisfying conclusion.

A refrain from Cheyenne describes the viewer’s impression very well: “Something’s not quite right here. I don’t know what exactly, but something.”

The film has good intentions, the camera makes the picture dynamic, a bit like a music video, and many of the smaller character parts are really touching. Unfortunately, the film never allows us to get close to them.

 

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.

How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate (1997)

Ireland

4*
Director:
Graham Jones
Screenwriters:
Graham Jones
Aislinn O’Loughlin
Tadhg O’Higgins
Director of Photography:
Robbie Ryan

Running time: 77 minutes

First things first: This was the début feature of a 22-year-old, and yet neither the usual first-time desire to show off nor the flaws of not knowing how to direct actors are on show here. The film has fast pacing but slows down at very significant points to focus on effecting smooth transitions through credible though very well-written dialogue; it is also great fun.

Shot during the summer of 1996 and showing the last school year (culminating in the middle of 1997) at James Joyce College in Dublin, the film quickly assembles a group of characters who want to beat the system by cheating on the big school-leaving exam called the leaving certificate or just “leaving cert”.

The film exploits the creativity and ingenuity (and, perhaps, blind optimism) of school children to make us believe they can put their heads together and best the security of the establishment, i.e. the Department of Education. But they, and the filmmaker, present the case in almost meticulous fashion to make us believe this can be done, even by complete amateurs.

Now, as the narrator reminds us, “cheating in the exam properly isn’t easy”, and it takes the group of students, almost all of them intelligent in ways that are different to the one tested by the school-leaving exam, a full year to put together a plan that would work.

They have few real obstacles, but while there are one or two tense moments, including a classically staged but very effective sequence of cross-cutting that brings to mind the famous tennis sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, the goal of How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate is to be more like a manual than a dramatic tale.

The idea of a manual is supported by delicious, informal but very informative narration provided by Nial O’Driscoll, who sets out all the information one would need to pull off the act of stealing the papers from the Department of Education’s high-security warehouse in the town of central rural Irish town of Athlone successfully.

The narrator also continuously reminds us of how important the exam is, and we often go back to the teachers who try to explain to their students how they should divide up their time to study for this once in a lifetime opportunity to make it big in the world and go to university. “Failure in the leaving certificate means failure for the rest of your lives!” a teacher bellows ominously in the opening scene.

The main actor in all this is Fionn (Garret Baker), a pupil whose friend Cian committed suicide when he was found cheating in his exams. Fionn is a lonely boy but he is committed to make a point by cheating and then coming out afterwards to show that his skill at staging such a heist apparently means nothing because it is not the kind of skill tested by the leaving certificate exam.

The logic is a bit flawed, but his quiet determination to prove to himself and to those around him the Department of Education is not as intelligent as they would like to think is certainly admirable and keeps the viewer glued to the screen.

The generally light-hearted approach of director Graham Jones to his material, especially in the form of the pleasure of listening to the narrator explain in great detail (at one point he even laughs at the naïveté of the characters, immediately endearing himself to us), goes a long way towards gaining our confidence that this is a film to be enjoyed fully.

And yet, with Cian’s suicide in the background and the sad face of Fionn claiming our attention in many scenes, it is also clear that this entertaining film is tinged with sadness that adds unexpected depth to the characters.

It is a great joy to watch this film, which shares the same kind of wit as The History Boys but is far more straightforward in its intentions and its emotions, perhaps unfortunately eschewing the complexity of the latter. The title tells us that everything will be fine, and the moments of dramatic tension because of uncertainty of what is going to happen are very rare. The writing is superior to the film itself, although there is the odd well-chosen visual flourish, and it would have been good to see Graham Jones contribute to more screenplays, which unfortunately has not really been the case since the release of this film.