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Kingdoms earthly and heavenly

06 June 2014

Stephen Brown sees new cinema releases

Out of the mouths: Colton Burpo (Connor Corum) and his father (Greg Kinnear) in Tristar Pictures' Heaven is for Real

Out of the mouths: Colton Burpo (Connor Corum) and his father (Greg Kinnear) in Tristar Pictures' Heaven is for Real

SOME have erroneously seen Jimmy's Hall (Cert. 12A) as a scathing attack on Roman Catholicism. Its director, Ken Loach, once told me with a broad smile that several of his screenwriters were "left-footers". His current one, Paul Laverty, was a seminarian. Moreover, Loach said how much he admired "people like you", meaning clergy who daily have to deal with many difficult situations. Loach and Laverty are merely exposing in this new film the oppressive collusion between one particular Church and state.

It is 1932, and a real-life activist, Jimmy Gralton, returns to County Leitrim after time in New York, having left in a hurry during the Irish Civil War (1922-23). The film concentrates on the village hall that he built before leaving, now closed. The RC Church and politicians forced this, fearing that it bred communist and free-spirited tendencies. Jimmy (the Dublin actor Barry Ward) is persuaded by friends to restore it. Attempts at education (poetry readings) and exercise (a boxing club) for an impoverished community quickly fall foul of Fr Sheridan, played by Jim Norton. These tasks, he says, are "the sole prerogative of Holy Church". And. when they organise a dance involving not only Irish music but jazz, too, the priest denounces by name all those in the congregation who attended.

Such ecclesiastical opposition at that stage of the 20th century may seem alien in England, where Christian Socialism, the YMCA, and the Workers' Educational Association (founded by a Reader) encouraged these very activities. But, unlike British religion's "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar", the grip of Irish Roman Catholicism remained very tight.

Fortunately, the parish priest is not portrayed as a pantomime villain. He respects many of Gralton's qualities. Indeed, little truly separates their outlooks. Both passionately believe in loving their neighbour, but, as Sheridan points out to his colleague Fr Seamus (Andrew Scott), one derives this understanding from Jesus, the other from the Communist manifesto. He invokes the spectre of Stalinist Russia. Its cruelties and atheism energise his efforts to prevent anything similar in Ireland. Though small in the great scheme of things, this village hall represents an enormous threat to the future stability of Ireland and the RC Church.

Seamus sees things differently. He counsels tolerance. Repression breeds belligerence, he says. But Gralton and Sheridan are, as we would expect, on a collision course. It is all a bit too predictable, even if one knew nothing of the historical facts. And, while our sympathies lie with the community, not the landed gentry whom the national Church defends, we see at parochial level two other aspects of the part played by the Church in society. Seamus is prophetic, denouncing those who abuse their power. On the other hand, Sheridan's mediating influence possibly gets better results.

Even so, Loach's earlier foray into Irish politics, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, which was steadfastly secular, packs more of a punch. He hasn't managed to make the Church as interesting in the current film. Perhaps his respect for the clergy made it harder to pull off.

WHILE wondering how many converts to religious belief Heaven is for Real (Cert. PG) will garner, I am in no doubt that the celestial has made megabucks for Sony Pictures in the United States, but the limited release of this film in the UK may reflect distributors' judging us to be more sceptical.

The film is based on the true-life account of a young boy, Colton Burpo (Connor Corum), who claims that during a near-death experience he visited heaven. Of course, if heaven is only for those who have died, then being near to dying isn't quite the same. Colton's guileless ability to recall particulars of people he had never met or things of which he was ignorant may well convince viewers.

Greg Kinnear (As Good As It Gets, The Kennedys) plays Todd, the boy's father, struggling to keep his business going. He is also a pastor. In cinematic terms, Todd's function is to help the audience identify with a questioning point of view. As pastor, Todd weighs up carefully what people tell him, frequently taking their accounts with a pinch of salt.

The film plays this aspect for all its worth, Colton's revelations present a threat as well as promise to fellow citizens of this small-town community. Thomas Haden Church (the wayward fiancé in Sideways) is the family friend who highlights the social implications of the vision that has Colton had. Perhaps inevitably, the father brings us round to perceiving life as stepping stones towards a realised eschatology. "Haven't we already had a glimpse of something in the first cry of a baby?" asks Todd.

Maybe I expected too much in wanting the film to examine elements of those Last Things, such as giving judgement more than a walk-on part. Colton says that in heaven everybody's young, and seems to be suggesting somewhere round the terrible twos typifies heavenly perfection.

Richard Holloway, the former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, wrote in his memoir Leaving Alexandria that "pooling your doubts, sharing your uncertainties . . . will never persuade multitudes. What persuades or converts others is always dramatic conviction dramatically expressed."

We definitely get that in Heaven is for Real, and American audiences have lapped it up. Furthermore, there is undoubtedly a heavenly quality to cinema. Films create things that exist outside the real world, and taunt us with their well-ordered excellence. This film's director and co-writer, Randall Wallace, who won Best Director Oscar for Braveheart, would concur. His colourful version of William Wallace's fight for Scottish independence was based, he said, on an account that spoke to his heart.

Using a little more head on both films might have improved them; but Wallace's financiers' more than redress this imbalance. Their heads were clearly well screwed on, and they recognised good box-office when they saw it.

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