As a cineaste, it can be easy to take Ken Loach for granted. Since his return to more commercial filmmaking in 1990 he has produced eighteen features. This is an impressive feat for any director, but in an age in which European funding is so precarious it is nothing short of a miracle. What is even more impressive, however, is his consistency. Over the past few decades Loach has become a kind of Woody Allen in reverse. Both average a film a year, but aside from recent gems such as Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine, Allen has continued to disappoint. Loach, on the other hand, can always be counted on to deliver the goods. Apart from the occasional forgettable effort, like 2010’s Route Irish, it has been a case of another year, another Loach classic. His films have racked up over twenty-five prizes at the three major European film festivals, and also a host of other awards. Yet they are not arid, rarefied works aimed at the art house crowd, but rather ones which balance a populist desire to entertain with a genuine commitment to educate and inform.
Expectations for his works are therefore deservedly high and when Loach announced earlier this year that Jimmy’s Hall would be his last feature, they went through the roof. Critics have, no doubt, been hoping to view Jimmy’s Hall as Loach’s final testimony, summing up his entire body of work. Loach though has never been that self-conscious and this is not a last film in the way that say, Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, was clearly intended to be. At the same time, it is possible to see something of Loach in the central character of Jimmy (based on the real-life activist Jimmy Gralton) who in 1932 returns from exile in New York to his home in post-Civil-War County Leitrim and rebuilds the local hall, creating a space where people can gather away from the repressive, judgmental gaze of the Catholic Church. Like Loach, Jimmy can envision a better, more equal world; yet both men are pragmatists who realise that for this to happen people must first be educated. To this end the hall functions as a secular school where the locals learn about painting, poetry and, above all, politics. It is also a place of fun, and Jimmy has brought with him the latest American records and dances as, like Loach, he knows that the best propaganda is wrapped in an entertaining package.
It is sad, then, to have to report that Jimmy’s Hall is easily Loach’s weakest film, featuring almost none of the virtues of his best work but all of the vices. He has often complained that people caricature the working classes on film, but here he mawkishly idealises them, while also portraying the church and community leaders as moustache-twirling villains. The political message is woefully unnuanced and hammered home in some very awkward, preachy dialogue and ham-fisted cutting, while the performances from a mixture of little-known and non-professional actors are rather stilted throughout. Loach’s admirers have often overlooked his habit of falling back on melodramatic final acts, but here he goes one further: the cringe-worthy ending could have strayed in from Dead Poet’s Society. Even the dance scenes are not too persuasively filmed (Loach has never been a very technical director) and the idea of dancing as a means of protest and a way of bringing together different races and classes was handled with far more grace, wit and energy in John Waters’ Hairspray. Let’s hope that the rumours are true and that Loach has decided not to retire. It would be wonderful if he could make one more film that was as good as Kes, Raining Stones or the sublime Ae Fond Kiss. As it is, Jimmy’s Hall is a cardboard gravestone for a brilliant fifty-year career.