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

Hunger (2008)

UK
5*

Director:
Steve McQueen

Screenwriters: 
Enda Welsh
Steve McQueen
Director of Photography:
Sean Bobbitt

Running time: 90 minutes

There is greatness behind every shot in Steve McQueen’s Hunger. This film marks the début of a remarkable talent that does not come round very often and demonstrates what is still possible within the realm of so-called alternative cinema. All the conventional tricks have been avoided, and they have been replaced by new approaches to representation and produced a work that is poetic yet immediate, at times subjective yet never silly, has gritty realism yet shines with an amazingly distinct visual style and is never drab. And despite its minimal use of the spoken word, it rolls along fluidly.

At the end of 1980, after more than four years of a “blanket protest”, during which prisoners refused to don the prison uniforms, since they considered themselves a different kind of prisoner (i.e. a political prisoner), and a “no-wash protest”, which is self-explanatory, an Irish republican named Bobby Sands decided to go on hunger strike in protest against the British government.

Bobby Sands is played here by Michael Fassbender, and his performance strips him down to the bone, both physically and emotionally. The word that jumps to mind is “visceral”, and it covers much of the film, which contains many scenes of prisoners being beaten with many different kinds of weapons – hands and handheld.

In the film’s first 15 minutes, barely a word is spoken, as we follow a prison guard, whose knuckles always seem to be raw, from his home where he looks under his car before puling out of the driveway every morning to the prison where he works. A new boy has just been admitted, and immediately upon arrival, he sides with the rest of the prisoners at the prison (it is Maze prison, which used to be located just south-west of Belfast, in Northern Ireland) in refusing to wear the prison uniform. He is taken to his cell, where the walls are covered in faeces and food.

In one scene, urine streams down a corridor, cascading from mashed potato embankments inside the cells. In another, maggots crawl next to a sleeping inmate inside his cell. To this scene, shot with from a stationary viewpoint, McQueen brings the same beauty as when the prison guard smokes outside in the snow and a close-up of his hands (often repeated throughout the film) shows a snowflake melting on his reddened knuckles.

McQueen fully engages both image and sound, and he stages his action in a way that pushes his film towards a kind of transcendentalism. In another scene, the prisoners are subjected to a cavity search. Scores of guards, in riot gear, line a corridor while a naked prisoner faces the onslaught of batons, fists and feet, until he reaches a central area and is rectally searched in the most violent manner possible. The camera swerves to mirror the energy of the moment, and yet the effect is not confusion but rather inspirational empathy with the prisoners. Then, towards the end of the scene, we realise, with great surprise, that one of the prison guards has been reduced to tears and is standing behind a wall, sobbing.

This brief moment, perhaps more than the technical and visual dexterity of the director, shows his compassion for the whole spectrum of characters in his film and made me think of those few seconds, at the beginning of Return of the Jedi, when the vicious monster that was unleashed on Luke is destroyed and this monster’s keeper is similarly heartbroken. So few film makers realise that it is always more interesting to have characters do the unexpected than the expected actions of their narrative peers.

But it is the film’s much-commented scene at its midpoint, an unbroken take 16½ minutes in length featuring Sands and a priest, that pushes it into the upper echelons of film making and underscores the genius of the filmmaker. Though very different in tone from the aforementioned scene of the full cavity search and some truly violent interactions between the prisoners and their guards, our attention is kept rapt thanks to both the performances and the courage of McQueen, which deliver a breathtaking moment of stasis at the centre of physical chaos.

Even as the film turns towards a more spiritual perspective, while Sands is suffering from the physical effects of being on a hunger strike, the film elegantly switches between direct point of view and oblique point of view, which affects the camera’s movement while still regarding him from the outside. The addition of superimposed birds swarming over his face while the camera hovers menacingly over his hospital bed is no simple-minded Gus van Sant-inspired gimmick but a perfectly distilled, truly magnificent expression of a state of mind.

One minor flaw is the introduction of Bobby Sands’s character – he simply appears, as if from nowhere, to take centre stage. The characters we meet in the faeces-covered cell give a human perspective to the material, and when they are replaced by Bobby’s plot thread, the connection to the story is retained despite the lack of a back story for Sands. So, while McQueen handles this transition very well, the balancing act does not completely make up for the fact that an important part of the story is missing. Perhaps McQueen assumed we would forgive him this oversight since Sands has some messianic status, an argument underlined by a moment in which he is carried, Pieta-like (or Marat-like?), from a bathtub back to his bed.