The latest activist drama from the elder statesman of British political cinema is a heartfelt portrait of ideological warfare in 1930s Ireland.
Ken Loach has taken a despicable episode of modern Irish history — the 1933 deportation without trial of one of its own citizens, James Gralton — and made a surprisingly lovely, heartfelt film from it with “Jimmy’s Hall.” A thematic sequel of sorts to his Cannes-winning “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” Loach’s 24th fiction feature finds the activist-minded director trafficking in familiar themes of individual liberties, institutional oppression and the power of collective organizing, here infused with a gentle romanticism that buoys the film without cheapening the gravity of its subject. All told a minor-key but eminently enjoyable work by a master craftsman, the pic opens next week in the U.K. and has been picked up by Sony Classics for the States.
Although it’s set a decade after the bloody War of Independence depicted in “Wind,” “Jimmy’s Hall” unfolds against a nation still sharply divided along political and religious lines. Back before the war, Jimmy (Barry Ward) had founded the Pearse-Connolly community hall in the southern Irish county of Leitrim, which became a home to dances and classes in art, music, literature and sport. All that brought the hall, and Jimmy himself, under the intense scrutiny of the local Catholic leaders, who considered education their exclusive purview and saw the hall as a threat to their sovereignty. So Jimmy fled to New York, and when “Jimmy’s Hall” opens in 1932, he has only just returned, to help his elderly mother (the excellent Aileen Henry) run the family farm following the death of his brother.
It doesn’t take long before the bored local youths persuade Jimmy to reopen the shuttered hall, now lying in a state of dusty disrepair, and for a while the movie comes to resemble one of those Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musicals, with everyone from miles around pitching in to help restore Pearse-Connolly to its former luster. Of course, all such stories must have a threatened, uncomprehending villain, and “Jimmy’s Hall” (which was written by regular Loach collaborator Paul Laverty) serves up a choice one in the form of parish priest Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), who takes to Jimmy’s return much as John Lithgow’s puritanical reverend in “Footloose” took to Kevin Bacon. Jazz is the devil’s music, he tells his congregation, warning against the “Los Angelization of our culture” and finally offering an ultimatum: “Is it Christ or is it Gralton?” To Loach and Laverty’s credit, however, they stop short of turning Sheridan into a caricature, depicting him as a man of principle who believes in his view of the world as fiercely as Gralton does in his.
If the plotting in Loach’s film sometimes verges on the rote, the emotions are typically full and satisfying, especially in the scenes between Jimmy (impressively played by Ward as a noble man of action) and his erstwhile sweetheart Oonagh (porcelain-eyed Simone Kirby), who couldn’t travel to America with him back then and now finds herself another man’s wife. Though their tragic romance is one of several fully fictionalized elements Laverty and Loach have injected into Gralton’s narrative, it nevertheless serves to deepen the film’s sense of a nation haunted by its past, and of the sacrifices made by individuals in the name of their ideals. In one especially tender scene, they dance silently in the darkened hall, swaying to the music in their heads and hearts.
Alas, Bessie Smith isn’t the only thing Jimmy has to blame for his troubles. As the hall grows in popularity, it also becomes a locus of community activism, particularly for those rallying against the forced eviction of poor tenants from the estates of wealthy landowners. This allows Loach to stage several of the talky but stimulating ideological tennis matches that were hallmarks of both “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” and the earlier “Land and Freedom,” and while some knowledge of the era’s Irish political landscape may be helpful to gleaning some of the film’s nuances (such as the ideological divides between liberal and conservative elements within the IRA), no prerequisites are needed to understand Gralton as a man of the people who rises to the occasion at enormous risk to his own future.
Loach’s filmmaking here has an elegant simplicity and flow from one scene to the next, enhanced by the subtle but beautifully detailed work of production designer Fergus Clegg and costume designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh. Shooting on 35mm film, d.p. Robbie Ryan makes fine use of natural light, and bathes the dance-hall scenes in a warm gaslamp glow.