In Jimmy’s Hall, veteran English director Ken Loach again partners with longtime screenwriting collaborator Paul Laverty (who wrote the screenplay for the 2006 Palme d’Or winning The Wind That Shakes the Barley). Indeed, Jimmy’s Hall can be seen as a kind of companion piece to that film – set one decade later in the 1930s, the wealthy farmer from Wind‘s prophecy of Ireland becoming a “priest-infested backwater” has since been fulfilled. Based on the life and times of Leitrim Socialist Jimmy Gralton, who in 1933 became the only Irishman to have ever been deported from Ireland, Loach treats his subject with a trademark tenderness, constructing a heartfelt if one-sided portrait of a man and his struggle for freedom against the oppression of Church and State.
Our story begins as Jimmy (Barry Ward) returns to his hometown County Leitrim after a decade-long stint in New York, having been forced into exile in May ’22 in the lead-up to the Irish Civil War. His return also brings the revival of his since-deserted Pearse-Connolly hall, after being urged to reopen it by a desperate flock of idle youths eager for a place to dance away from scrutiny. Jimmy brings back with him the liberal spirit of New York’s ‘roaring twenties’: his gramophone and collection of jazz records planting seeds of vitality in the otherwise drab community. The hall becomes a hive of activity and community, with classes offered in dance, literature, singing and boxing, much to the chagrin of parish priest Father Sheridan (Jim Norton). For education is the sole preserve of the Catholic Church, with Jimmy’s hall seen as a direct threat, its attendees as sinners. Father Sheridan resolves to take down the hall and Jimmy along with it: “Christ, or Jimmy Gralton’s hall?” the ultimatum he presses upon the community.
Thus hero is placed against villain, and here the film suffers somewhat from a lack of nuance in characterisation and narrative complexity, the ensuing slightness detracting from the strength of its well-placed message. The audience is unambiguously placed to sympathise with everyman Jimmy and his crew. Handsome, eloquent Jimmy can seemingly do no wrong, his supporters hanging on his every prophetic word. Bathed in golden light, he is the centre of the room as dances with old flame Oonagh (Simone Kirby) as the band play in the background, in a scene not dissimilar from a certain Irish dance party in Titanic, indeed sharing much of that film’s sentimentality (minus the Enyaesque soundtrack).
That is not to say the film is not entirely watchable or enjoyable, it is. One simply expects more from Loach, whose films are renowned for being political without venturing on the didactic, with a humour and naturalism uniquely his own. Perhaps the hero-worshipping of Jimmy is born out of a feeling of duty by Loach and Laverty to pay sufficient tribute to the memory of Gralton, not wanting to paint him in anything less than an idolatry light. The film is exquisitely shot by DOP Robbie Ryan, the dance sequences reminiscent of Degas paintings in their soft lighting and delicate composition, displaying a masterful approach achieved mostly using natural light and also visible in radiant landscape shots of the Irish countryside. There are some great scenes, especially those set in the hall such as a tender reading of WB Yeats’ “The Song of the Wandering Aengus”, and a heated discussion around a political course of action, both particularly strong in their depiction of the collective.
Fans of Loach will certainly find much to enjoy in his latest film, rumoured to be his last (hopefully in error), but those expecting a complex, nuanced tale the likes of The Wind That Shakes the Barley will likely leave wanting more.