Cannes Check 2014: Ken Loach’s ‘Jimmy’s Hall’

Welcome back to Cannes Check, In Contention's annual preview of the films in Competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 14. Taking on different selections every day, we'll be examining what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Jane Campion's jury. Next up, the lineup's second Palme d'Or-winning British stalwart: Ken Loach's “Jimmy's Hall.”

The director: Ken Loach (British, 77 years old). Often labelled the father of British social realism on film, Ken Loach is as famed for the no-nonsense naturalism of his aesthetic as for his defiantly socialist politics — evident to varying degrees in 26 cinematic features (narrative and documentary) over 47 years. A lower-middle-class grammar school student turned Oxford law graduate, Loach began his career in television, directing a series of socially conscious BBC teleplays — most famously the homelessness study “Cathy Come Home” — before making his first feature film, “Poor Cow,” in 1967. The landmark “Kes” followed two years later; his work received less attention in the 1970s, but 1981's “Looks and Smiles” marked a creative resurgence, and the first of his many Cannes entries. He has since become a European festival mainstay, contributing to the auteur-studded anthology films “11'09″01” and “Tickets,” and finally winning the Palme d'Or for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” in 2006. Widespread acceptance hasn't softened his politics, though he has embraced comedy more of late. He has announced his planned retirement from narrative filmmaking, though his documentary work (like last year's “The Spirit of '45”) should continue.

The talent:  Scottish lawyer turned screenwriter Paul Laverty has become an inseparable component of Loach's cinema, writing 13 projects for the director beginning with 1996's “Carla's Song.” “Jimmy's Hall,” adapted by Laverty from Donal O'Kelly's play, extends their collaboration. Rebecca O'Brien has been Loach's trusty producer since 1990. Gifted Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan, best known for his collaborations with Andrea Arnold, first worked with Loach on 2012's “The Angel's Share” (and is also the eye behind Director's Fortnight entry “Catch Me Daddy”). Five-time Oscar nominee George Fenton (“Gandhi,” “Dangerous Liaisons”) composed the score; his collaboration with Loach dates back 20 years. Production designer Fergus Clegg is another Loach regular; returning from his last period piece, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” is Emmy-nominated costume designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh. 

The film's leading man, Barry Ward, won't be immediately familiar to most audiences, having worked extensively in Irish theatre and television; the same goes for co-star Simone Kirby. A few more well-known Irish character actors pop up in the supporting cast, notably Andrew Scott (a BAFTA winner for his work as Moriarty in “Sherlock”) and Tony-winning Broadway star Brian F. O'Byrne (who originated Philip Seymour Hoffman's role in “Doubt”).

The pitch: Loach has stated that “Jimmy's Hall” will be his final narrative feature — assuming he treats the notion of retirement with more seriousness than, say, Cher, he looks to be ending this section of his filmography on a reasonably upbeat note. Like the Irish Civil War drama “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” his latest takes on a key stretch of 20th-century Irish history, but in a more celebratory context. Its real-life subject is James Gralton (played by Ward), a communist leader who remains the only Irishman ever to be deported from Ireland; set in 1932, it focuses on Gralton's return to his homeland after a decade in the US, and his quest to re-open the rural dance hall of the title, which served as both a liberated meeting place for young people and, controversially, a forum for Gralton's radical politics. No prizes for guessing why this slice of history appealed to Loach, for whom cinema has been his own equivalent hall.

The prestige: While critics disagree as to whether Loach's latter-day work merits such unfailing loyalty, the director can do no wrong in festival programmers' eyes: with “Jimmy's Hall” marking his 12th (and supposedly final) bid for the Palme d'Or, he is the most-selected director in the history of the Cannes Competition. He's won his share of awards on the Croisette, too. Prior to his unexpected Palme win for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” he took the Jury Prize twice for “Raining Stones” and “Hidden Agenda”; he took the same award two years ago for “The Angels' Share.” (The FIPRESCI and Ecumenical juries have also given generously over the years.) It's not just Cannes that reveres him, either: earlier this year, he accepted a career-achievement Golden Bear at the Berlinale, while BAFTA handed him a Fellowship in 2006.

The buzz: Some eyes rolled when Loach showed up yet again in the lineup, but there was no way Cannes was going to pass on this one: the film's chapter-closing status will secure it a lot of sentimental headlines, whether or not the critics go for it — reports from early screenings suggest the film is short on surprises, but amiable and impassioned. That has arguably been Loach's recent M.O., and some are evidently more charmed by it than others: an appealing but minor diversion, “The Angels' Share” was hardly a buzz title at the 2012 fest, but still copped a prize. The relatively rousing subject matter, meanwhile, makes “Jimmy's Hall” a more commercially viable art-house proposition than much of Loach's recent work.

The odds: Just how many sentimental awards can Loach win at Cannes? Wong Kar-wai's 2006 jury may have been legitimately bowled over by “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” but the Palme d'Or (after seven previous attempts) inevitably felt like a lifetime achievement award in disguise. 2012's Jury Prize, too, had a “thanks for being you” air about it. Jane Campion's jury may be tempted to hand Loach a nice farewell gift, but it's hard to imagine it being the Palme — Jigsaw Lounge agrees, giving odds of 25-1, while Paddy Power is considerably more optimistic at 10-1. 

The date: “Jimmy's Hall” premieres on Thursday, May 22.

Next in Cannes Check, we'll profile the most eagerly awaited US title in Competition: Bennett Miller's “Foxcatcher.”