What a marvelous thing it is when politics and/or social causes embrace the personal impact of movements on dynamic individuals. That is where/when such movements begin to matter to audiences, beyond merely providing us with familiar faces that can tend to obscure the issues themselves. It is better to delve into characters and events that are unfamiliar, unknown to us, in fact, and performers with no previous associations to cloud our judgment or appreciation. If handled properly, we find ourselves as exiles, cast out of the lives and world we know, wandering in new and strange (unexplored) territory, searching, if we dare, for points of comparison to what we’ve left behind in the world offscreen.
Fittingly, Ken Loach (The Wind That Shakes the Barley) continues to offer audiences his British socialist outsider narratives, this time delving into the Depression era return of Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) to his home in Ireland after a decade spent in exile in the United States. Jimmy was a charismatic figure, a common man with dreams of connecting his community – their hearts, minds, and spirits – to one another and possibly to a larger collection of like-minded strivers. But, it turns out, such dreamers are dangerous, especially in a time immediately following a civil war, a battle of wills where ideas and ideologies can lead to fear and the need to authoritarian assaults.
When first we see Jimmy though, he coming home after years in exile. Coming from America, New York City, no less, back to Ireland as a prodigal son. He is a sympathetic figure, visiting the gravesite of someone close who died while he was away, embracing his mother, and celebrating with those closest to him in the community who stayed behind. Without his presence, they persevered, but did not forget or give up on the ideals, which means that a younger generation knows of the legend of Jimmy Gralton and seeks to enlist his aid in refurbishing the old hall he ran, where volunteers taught art and boxing, sponsored book clubs, and held concerts and dances; all outside the purview of the Catholic Church, which felt it was the only moral authority able to guide the community.
Loach takes us back a decade, to the beginning of Jimmy’s Hall, the place where the dream came to life, and where the film of the same name seeks to return. The parallels clearly establish the distinct periods and then melt away just as quickly. Time doesn’t matter because the situation hasn’t changed at all. The Church, in the form of Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), the elder priest, remains the enemy, deathly afraid of Jimmy’s counter-cultural preachings that, if carefully considered, are not antithetical to teachings of Jesus (God’s commie son).
Jimmy endeavors to stay out of trouble, but he cannot ignore the extreme poverty and the overwhelming oppression in effect, so he decides to re-open the dance hall that initially led to his deportation. What brings it all home is Jimmy’s efforts to re-connect with Oonagh (Simone Kirby), the lover and compatriot he left behind. Each of them moved on with their lives, but again, did not forget or give up on the feelings they shared. And once, Jimmy makes the inevitable choice to commit to re-starting the hall and he begins sharing stories about his time away (and dance lessons from his nights at the Savoy, one of the only places where blacks and whites could come together), he reaches out to Oonagh, using her as a would-be partner to showcase new moves, knowing, of course, where this will lead.
Jimmy’s Hall is about the forces that send a man into exile, the never-ending small injustices, the efforts to strangle a man’s dreams, but Loach shows us that such lofty ideals never belong to just one man, even one as singular as Jimmy Gralton (and Ward perfectly captures the honest idealism of a man who could have been a boring sainted figure, but instead embodies the best of our complex humanity). Jimmy and his hall will never be lost or defeated, even in exile.
Barry Ward, in the second of two new releases inhabits the role of yet another exile in Joseph Bull and Luke Seomore’s Blood Cells (which arrived on DVD and VOD earlier this week via Garden Thieves Pictures). The film makes for a fascinating double feature alongside Jimmy’s Hall, and not simply for Ward’s appearance in each film. The twofer offers a challenging and quite divergent look at how one deals with a life in exile.
In Blood Cells, Adam (Ward) wanders around in a self-imposed state of drifting, away from family and home, obviously seeking to escape or drown/anesthetize himself from guilt. He has no cause, other than his guilt, and when called to return – by his younger brother on the eve of the birth of his child – Adam is given an ultimatum. Come at once for the birth or never come again. The request triggers flashes of Adam’s life before, puzzle-like fragments we must piece together to understand what drove him away, while he begins the pained, and somewhat halting, journey back.
Unlike Jimmy’s Hall, Blood Cells has a contemporary setting, albeit slightly infused with a dystopian vibe; the sense of a haunted futurescape, a wasted land of strobing lights and burned out plains on the edge of the horizon. At each step along the way, Adam is hungrily gathering the broken pieces of his psyche together to help him find the path.
This time, Ward captures the desolation of Adam’s mind and heart, which stands in stark contrast to Jimmy Gralton, a man overflowing with life and a sense of his place in the world. The question in this second case is whether or not Adam ever truly makes his way home. (tt stern-enzi)