D: Ken Loach / 109m
Cast: Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Jim Norton, Francis Magee, Brían F. O’Byrne, Aisling Franciosi, Martin Lucey, Aileen Henry, Andrew Scott
Returning home to Ireland in 1932 after ten years living in New York, communist sympathiser Jimmy Gralton (Ward) finds himself welcomed by his mother and the rest of the local community. He’s looked upon as a hero by both his own generation and the younger generation who’ve grown up on tales of his standing up to the church when he ran the local hall. Jimmy fled then to avoid being arrested, and the hall has fallen into disrepair in the years since. The church, represented by Father Sheridan (Norton), viewed the hall as promoting wickedness, with its dance classes and social events. When the news of Jimmy’s return reaches him, Sheridan does his best to coerce the locals, and Jimmy himself, to leave the hall as it is, and makes it clear that if the hall does reopen, it will mean trouble for everyone.
Encouraged by the support of the local community, and undaunted by Father Sheridan’s threats, Jimmy decides to reopen the hall. In doing so, he rekindles a romance he had with Oonagh (Kirby), even though she married while he was gone, and has had two children. On the opening night, the hall is packed, much to Father Sheridan’s displeasure, and despite his taking the names of the people who attend. Things begin to get out of hand when Marie (Franciosi) is beaten by her father (O’Byrne) for being there, and threats are made against Jimmy and the hall. Soon, Father Sheridan is using Jimmy’s radicalism as a reason for having the hall closed, and with the local landowners – who stood with the church ten years before – accuses Jimmy of trying to introduce communist ideology into the community via the open door policy at the hall. The state becomes involved, and it’s not long before there’s a warrant issued for his arrest.
Purportedly Loach’s farewell to moviemaking, Jimmy’s Hall, at times, plays like a movie that someone attempting to imitate Ken Loach might make. It’s got his political and religious points of view, it celebrates the underdog, it has a real sense of the community it’s presenting, and it takes melodrama and makes it appear matter-of-fact. There’s the expected camaraderie amongst Jimmy and his friends and neighbours, the hissable villain representing repressive authority, outbursts of unjustifiable violence, a clearly defined historical perspective, and naturalistic acting from its cast. (In one sense, it’s like a “greatest hits” package.)
And yet this is also very much Loach-lite, as it were. It doesn’t have the impact needed to elevate the material beyond its basic structure and set up, and it lacks the passion that the people at the time must have felt about the issue. Watching Jimmy’s Hall is like hearing someone describe something really terrible but in a completely even tone of voice. And even though it’s based on a true story, there’s little here that merits a whole movie’s worth of attention. Gralton, as played by Ward, is a sincere man, thoughtful, considerate, politically astute, romantic, but even with all that in his favour, he’s a bit colourless at the same time. Long stretches of the movie go by without his being on screen at all, and when he is on screen, he’s often the secondary focus or part of the crowd, leaving the audience to wonder just what it is about the man that has warranted so much attention. Aside from a scene where he shows off his dance moves, and a showdown with Father Sheridan (that changes nothing), Gralton is almost a bystander in his own story. (There is his affair with Oonagh but that feels like it’s there to add further tragedy to events that are already fairly tragic on their own.)
The movie firmly supports Gralton and the villagers in their aims regarding the hall – poetry and dance classes, social events etc. – and the importance of the hall in their lives is portrayed effortlessly and with approval, Loach emphasising the need for it in broad but efficient brush strokes. With the cause given such attention, the opponents are given less consideration, and appear needlessly narrow minded. Sheridan is blinkered in his approach to Gralton and the hall, and with Paul Laverty’s script demonising the man at every turn, it quickly becomes draining watching him refute the good the hall engenders, and all because of some misguided notion that it will encourage lewd behaviour. It’s a measure of Norton’s abilities as an actor that Sheridan isn’t completely free of introspection, and a scene with Father Seamus (Scott) and a phonograph gives more insight into the man but arrives too late in the movie to do any good. And then there’s Marie’s father, the opponents’ blunt instrument, a character whose sole purpose in the movie is to show brute, unreasoning force was used against the villagers and by doing so, elicit more sympathy for them (as if we might not have enough already).
This simplistic approach stops Loach from captivating his audience, and while his usual polemical outlook is well established, the actual slightness of the material as well stops the movie from achieving anything more meaningful. That said, the assembled cast are well chosen and there’s not a false note to be found in their performances (even if their character appears underwritten). Magee and Franciosi, in particular, deserve a mention. The movie is also beautiful to look at, Robbie Ryan’s cinematography bringing out the best of the County Leitrim locations (where the original events took place), and there’s a fine score courtesy of regular contributor George Fenton that mixes Irish music with jazz and blues to often moving effect. Loach’s direction is as effortless as ever, and while the material may be modest in its ambition and scope, he’s still able to place often quietly moving moments and some subtle humour in amongst the political diatribes.
Rating: 7/10 – not as sharp or poignant as expected, Jimmy’s Hall has more to say about what makes a community than it does the political landscape of the times; however, a Ken Loach movie is always worth seeing, and despite reservations, this is no different.