Featuring: Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Jim Norton, Andrew Scott, Brian F. O’Byrne
Director: Ken Loach
Screenwriter: Paul Laverty
Movie Website: www.facebook.com/JimmysHallFilm
Verdict: Enjoyable, beautifully shot and well performed, but undermined by a propagandist element that detracts from the humanism of the piece.
The focus of director Ken Loach throughout his long filmmaking career has been the fight of the battler to rise above the indignity and misery of exploitation and economic disempowerment through spirit, humour and the support of a working class community bound by shared values. This tale of Jimmy Gralton, the only Irishman to have been deported from Ireland, is typical Loach fare.
Set in the 1930s, with post-Civil War Ireland under a new government, the film opens with a definitively Irish scene of a cart and horse traversing a winding road through lovely green country. On board is Jimmy (Barry Ward), returning to his home county after a decade of exile in New York prompted by the Church and capitalist forces threatened and outraged by his Communist views and influence on locals while running a community hall encouraging free-thinking and non-traditional contemporary cultural expression.
His plan is to live a quiet life and look after his aging mother. It is not long, however, before bored young locals, for whom he has acquired legendary status, urge him to re-open the hall. Reluctant to risk antagonising the Church and wealthy landowners who have claimed the hall as their property, he initially declines, but it is not long before he follows his heart and reverses his decision.
With the community assisting to refurbish the dilapidated hall and the objections of the party-pooping landowners overcome, it is soon thrumming with activity: boxing, free-thinking discussion groups, and the latest in jazz dance moves brought back from New York by Jimmy, along with a marvellous new gramophone and a swag of groovy records.
It is not long before Jimmy is back in direct conflict with his old enemies. The local priest, Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), emerges as the villain of the piece, and he and Jimmy as figureheads for opposing philosophies and political forces: Christian fundamentalism vs free-thinking humanism, conservative vs progressive, socialist vs capitalist. There is no doubt, of course, about where Loach’s sympathies lie, and his black-and-white treatment of the two characters and the sides they represent is not much short of propagandist – always a weakness in a film in a dramatic context, and too often so in Loach’s work.
That said, Father Sheridan’s ego-driven fundamentalism, and his conviction that his values are right and absolute, and that those who do not share them are to be condemned if not eliminated in the name of righteousness, have tragic parallels in the loathsome terrorist scourge that besets us today. It is difficult to resist mentally hissing at this nasty, scheming, bigoted old bastard, and all he stands for.
Jimmy, on the other hand, is not the powerful personality he should be. Loach downplays his protagonist’s Communist ideology, thereby undercutting his supposed status as a formidable political adversary and threat to the Establishment. Jimmy comes across not so much as a free-thinking revolutionary as an importer of jazz and New World style, and Father Sheridan as a prude and killjoy, rather than a cleric who understands and recognises the threat represented by an ideology that would seek to liberate whole populations from the shackles of the Church and the capitalist system.
The film is at its best when the characters are allowed free reign, unhitched to any political agenda. For example, the high point of the film is a scene in which Jimmy and his ex-girlfriend Oonagh (Simone Kirby) dance alone in the notorious hall, she wearing for the first and probably only time a fetching New York flapper dress he’d gifted her. This touching dance of love unrequited and doomed, but enduring through all, is poignant indeed.
If Jimmy’s Hall is to be Loach’s swansong, as he claims, he has finished with a movie that is enjoyable, beautifully shot and well performed, but it could have been more. He has chosen to sign off as a propagandist in service of his political ideology, when it is his deep-seated humanism that has powered his best work.
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