Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Odysseus in Leitrim

Ken Loach's new film, Jimmy's Hall, has been dismissed by some as "minor key" and "exasperatingly thin". I suspect the exasperation is that this will not be, as originally advertised, his last film. Loach continues to be damned with faint praise by British (and Irish) film critics. The subject matter, Ireland in the early 1930s, suggests that this is a companion piece to The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which was set during the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War. In the new film, the anti-Treaty Jimmy Gralton is forced to flee in 1923, driven out by a pro-Treaty new order personified by the thuggish landowner O'Keefe and the Machiavellian Father Sheridan. He returns in 1932 as Eamon De Valera and Fianna Fáil take office, which marks the final marginalisation of the anti-Treaty forces and the absorption of "responsible republicanism" into the establishment.

If the earlier film had faint echoes of The Iliad (hostages, a riven camp), this new work centres on an Odysseus (Jimmy) who has returned home to find that Penelope (Oonagh) has married another man during his long absence. His unwillingness to compromise her, despite the obvious mutual attraction, is seen as trite by some, but it surely emphasises the realisation of both that exile is his unavoidable destiny. It's just a matter of time. The chief symbol of the film is the Pearse-Connolly Hall, a social space for politics and culture that Jimmy had built during the War of Independence, and which he now decides to reopen in a misguided gesture of reconciliation. The film's title suggests that the greater hall is Jimmy's attempt to establish a socialist community. The free-thinking challenge this presents to property and the church will inevitably lead to its figurative and literal destruction.

Dotted throughout Paul Laverty's script are Homeric turns of phrase. Oonagh rejected the earlier chance to flee Ireland with Jimmy, restrained by the need to care for her parents and fearful of "following you around your battles". Since then, the wandering Jimmy has seen the world: "I've been a soldier, a sailor, a miner. I have been on the sea and under the land". Now returned from a semi-mythical America, laden with a gramophone and jazz records, his admirers say he "brought the world to us". This antique register works well with Loach's trademark use of non-professional actors, notably Eileen Henry as Jimmy's mother. You can criticise this as the fetishisation of the authentic, but it is dim to patronise it, as one Dublin critic does, as "the manner of an inexpressive speak-your-weight machine".

The echo of Odysseus is reinforced when you consider that Joyce's Ulysses was first published in 1922, the year that marked the inception of the Irish new order and the impetus to Jimmy's earlier exile. An amusing parallel with the novel is the recurrent use of cups of tea as a motif of social exchange: Jimmy is welcomed home with tea and ham sandwiches, the visiting priest must always be offered tea (and ideally scones), while the parochial house is lubricated by both tea and whiskey. The latter setting distracted some critics with its similarity to Father Ted, not least because Sheridan is played by Jim Norton (Bishop Brennan in the comedy) and despite the diversionary presence of Andrew Scott (Moriarty in TV's Sherlock) in the "Dougal" role. The serious point is that it took until the 1990s before the social reality was sufficiently distant to allow a cosy parody.

A less forgivable parallel was made by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian with John Ford's The Quiet Man, purely on the basis that the film features a bloke returning from America. This is almost as obtuse as categorising the pro-Treaty O'Keefe as an IRA man, which Bradshaw blithely does. The better Hollywood parallel is the Keystone Cops bumbling of the Gardai, tumbling out of a cottage window when Jimmy's mother locks them in. There is also a pulpit reference to "Losangelisation" by Father Sheridan, which is improbable coming from an Irish priest in the 1930s (New York and Chicago were the American Sodom and Gomorrah of the day), but may voice Loach's own disdain for a money-obsessed industry.

O'Keefe represents the fascist strain of politics that was widespread in Europe at the time and often intertwined with the Catholic church, notably in Spain and Austria. But while the totalitarian state didn't take root in Ireland (the Blueshirts were absorbed by Fine Gael), this was as much down to the dominance of the church as any scruples on the part of the politicians. Loach, like Father Sheridan, makes much of the 1932 International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, featured in a newsreel, as a symbol of the church's grip on society. The other use of film within the film is the opening credit sequence, which shows skyscrapers being built and people dancing in New York - a contrasting vision of progress and democracy (Jimmy admits to dancing with black women: "The thing is, they've got two legs").

The church's paranoid strain of social conservatism remained dominant throughout De Valera's long and barren reign as Prime Minister, the fag-end of which provides the setting for Quirke, the current TV adaptation of John Banville's Benjamin Black thrillers, in which tea has decisively given way to whiskey. As well as gloom and cynicism, the era also produced the satire of Brian O'Nolan (aka Flann O'Brien, aka Myles na gCopaleen), notably the ambiguous character of "The Plain People of Ireland" that lives on in the cultural notion of "begrudgery". Amidst the British TV vogue for serial killers and small town mayhem, the more subtle demands of this Irish Noir are a treat.

Quirke also foreshadows more recent concerns in its exposure of institutionalised child abuse and political graft, which brings us bang up to date. A leading analysis of the Irish crash of 2007-8 was Fintan O'Toole's Ship of Fools, suggesting both the claustrophobia of the nation and the desire for mobility. That tension, between insularity and cosmopolitanism, has been the chief theme of Irish culture since the Flight of the Earls and in part explains Ireland's importance to Modernism. It can be found in the works of the McDonagh brothers, notably the recent film Calvary, in which Brendan Gleeson's worldly priest rejects escape (unlike his Dougal) and instead seeks to atone for the community's sins.

What Loach and Laverty have shown in Jimmy's Hall is that the concerns of an agrarian society - property and the power it entails - can bridge an ancient past with an urgent present. This is a thoughtful and subtle film that unpicks clichés and excavates ruins, in a manner utterly foreign to the sentimentality of The Quiet Man. "Exasperatingly thin" would be a better description of the quality of mainstream criticism.

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