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Fear of free thinking
on 6 June 2014
Ken Loach's heart is in the right place and the injustice suffered by the rural poor in Ireland is a theme which draws him back once again, although the theme seems smaller scale, the violence lower key than in "The Wind that Shakes the Barley".
In 1932, Jimmy Gralton returns from recession-ridden New York to care for his widowed mother after his brother's death but it soon becomes clear that he has in fact ended an exile resulting from his construction of a community hall seen as a threat by the Catholic church, since it provided education and encouraged working class people to think for themselves. A legendary local hero, he is mobbed on his return by the youngsters who wish him to revive the hall, and the lure proves too great to resist.
Apart from old political enemies, a major source of tension is the fierce opposition still presented by the local priest who seems obsessed with Jimmy, perhaps in part by the nagging sense that, although an atheist, communist and freethinker, he is in fact a man of integrity. Self-educated on the books from his mother's former mobile library, Jimmy is also a persuasive speaker well able to counter the priest's pulpit oratory. Soon, the hall is restored to its former glory, with the added novelty of a wind-up gramophone and the jazz records brought back by Jimmy. The free and joyous dancing to this music is of course the last straw for the priest.
Apart from Jimmy's battle with the conservative priest,the strongest threads are his relationships with his deceptively meek and simple mother who in fact shares many of his ideals, and with his old flame Oonagh, now married, for whom his love is all the more poignant since they are so well-matched and in sympathy with each other. Despite all this, the plot is a little too thin for the length of the film (109 minutes) and the intended naturalness and apparent use of improvisation sometimes seem to fall a little flat. I agree with reviewers who have said that at times the film smacks of "political theatre" and becomes somewhat wooden or didactic. Yet, there are many engaging scenes and subtle interplay between the characters. Jimmy is convincing and charismatic, and the acting, which I sense may include a number of local extras with speaking parts, is in general very effective.
It was a problem for me that I did not possess a clear enough grasp of the internal politics of early 1930s Ireland to understand some of the political discussions which ensued. However, Loach does not miss the opportunity to draw a clear parallel between the bankers' greed of 1920s America, which triggered the Great Depression, and the recent financial crisis.