Since Poor Cow nearly 50 years ago Ken Loach has remained committed to social realist films about characters who survive on the edges of history. Perhaps that interest in the political and the marginal explains why his films are too little seen in this country. He often works in television and his last release, Looking for Eric, was about a working class man’s obsession with the soccer star Eric Cantona. That story was amusing and informative — I knew nothing about the sports star. In 2007, The Wind That Shakes the Barley featured Cillian Murphy as a medical student who becomes swept away by the Irish fight for independence in 1919-1921, and the ensuing civil war from 1922-1923. That was a rousing tale that made history personal though it was not entirely clear about facts. The title came from the famous Irish song:
Twas hard the woeful words to frame
To break the ties that bound us
Twas harder still to bear the shame
Of foreign chains around us
And so I said, “The mountain glen
I’ll seek next morning early
And join the brave United Men!”
While soft winds shook the barley
Loach returns to that turbulent period of Irish history with Jimmy’s Hall. In flashbacks set in 1921, we see that Jimmy Gralton initiated the building of the Pearse-Connolly Hall just as civil war was breaking out. Politicians and the clergy demanded the ‘sedicious’ hall close and Jimmy fled the country to avoid arrest. By 1932, times had settled down and Jimmy took the opportunity to return from self-exile in New York, where he saw rampant greed and excess push America into the Great Depression. He comes back to his native land in search of a simpler life. The hall he helped build — once a symbol of freedom and liberation — has been shuttered for quite some time. Still, memories of the dancing and music that brought solace to the impoverished region persists and Jimmy decides the building (and its spirit) should be renewed. Predictably, conservative politics and a mean-spirited Catholic establishment rear their sour heads and the situation quickly deteriorates.
The real Jimmy Gralton was, in fact, a communist who joined the Revolutionary Workers’ Group and spoke for worker and tenant rights and for progressive government. Loach uses this little known historical figure to explore the perennial struggle for justice and freedom. Loach’s political angle is narrow here: he has been criticized for the film’s lack of dialectical complexity, for making Jimmy a glib mouthpiece for left-wing politics. Those are fair enough points to make, but they don’t take into account that the film is more playful than some of Loach’s previous, more radical efforts. Screenwriter Paul Laverty, who wrote both of the director’s previous films, has penned three rousing and didactic speeches; but they are delivered with enlivening gusto by Barry Ward in the role of Jimmy. The first is a clear and reasoned argument highlighting the hypocrisies of the Catholic Church: it is delivered directly to the local priest, Father Sheridan, who is bent on shutting down the hall. Later, Jimmy speaks to Sheridan in the confessional, accusing him of being hateful. Finally, Jimmy speaks with inspiring ferocity to a group of assembled townspeople protesting the forced removal of a poor family from the land of a baron. Laverty and Loach are self-consciously wearing their hearts on their sleeves here: the character is protesting age old, universal inequities revolving around privilege and poverty, wealth and class.
The script makes use of familiar tropes about the nobility of the Irish working-class spirit and its struggle for fairness. Loach seizes on the potential of Laverty’s script for the picturesque, and fills the film to the brim with a motley cast of ruddy Irish faces, gorgeous rustic settings, and alluring country roads. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan has commented on the visuals: “It’s one of the very last movies to be manually edited on a Steenbeck (a Pixar donation) and one of the very last movies to be shot on Kodak 35mm stock.”
The performers also recognize that Jimmy’s Hall is as much fable as it is yarn, what with Jimmy dancing in as a liberator. Jimmy’s mother, played by newcomer Aileen Henry, is a square and sturdy Irish archetype. Father Sheridan is played with demonic delight by Jim Norton. With his twinkling blue eyes and overgrown hedge of white eyebrows this ‘good Father’ smugly sips whisky with the local establishment types as he spews sanctimonious pronouncements about what is holy and what is blasphemous. Jimmy, wouldn’t you know, has an unrequited but now married love, the indomitable and long-suffering Oonagh (Simone Kirby). Tony award- winning actor Brian F. O’Byrne, rigid and humorless in his glowering mustache, nimbly plays Jimmy’s nemesis, Commander O’Keefe.
Having lived in New York City during the 1920’s, Jimmy brings to his hometown the syncopated rhythms of The Jazz Age. The movie’s music and dancing shifts from step and Irish jigs to awkward attempts at pulling off the Lindy Hop. The band performs in real time during the music scenes, moving seamlessly from reels to swing jazz. High-stepping, singing lessons, poetry appreciation, boxing classes, and debates on workers’ rights are educational as well as spiritually enlivening parts of the workers’ world in Jimmy’s Hall. But the Church demands ownership of their souls, and the dominate landowners want control of their labor. “Education is an exclusive reserve of Holy Mother church not semi-illiterates. I will not have a communist on my turf defy the church,” barks Sheridan when he interrupts a community dance class.
Jimmy is relentlessly demonized as a communist. It would be the fate suffered by some Americans who, two decades later, were persecuted for cultivating socialist leanings during these Roosevelt years. The real Jimmy Gralton became the only Irish citizen ever to have been deported from the country: he was forcibly removed and put on a boat to America. He would never again set foot in his native land. The political and moral issues the film raises are both timeless and contemporary; Jimmy’s Hall may cut a somewhat preachy path through history, but it is a sound and satisfying bit of Irish storytelling