Jimmy’s Hall is in many ways the sequel of director Ken Loach’s (and screen writer Paul Laverty’s) 2006 film The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
In the previous film Loach depicted the Irish War of Independence (1919-21), siding with the losing republicans in the subsequent civil war (1922-1923). It was a compelling film, although Loach was criticised in this paper for oversimplifying the politics of the situation and finding no way of marrying large scale politics to a more intimate human story. Jimmy’s Hall shares its predecessor strengths and weaknesses.
The film, based on real people and events, opens in 1932 with the election into government of Éamon de Valera’s Fianna Fail, a party rooted in the republican movement vanquished in the civil war but nonetheless becoming an increasingly conservative force. The new government allows the film’s central character, Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward), a veteran of the left-wing of Irish republicanism, to return from the USA to his home in rural County Leitrim in the north west of Ireland.
Here, the film is vague on the politics. Gralton’s opponents refer to him as a communist and copies of Workers’ Voice the paper of the Irish Revolutionary Workers’ Groups’ (RWG) (which formed the Irish Communist Party in 1933) are seen, but only in the hands of Gralton’s opponents. Although it would appear that the real Gralton was a leading member of the RWG in Leitrim the film portrays him as a community activist with socialist ideas but no political affiliation.
The heart of the film is, as ever with Loach, a human story. Gralton re-opens the community hall that a rather ill-defined group of locals had built ten years early. This is portrayed as little more than a community resource, although it is also a challenge to the Catholic hierarchy which claimed a monopoly on the welfare of the citizens. The film is more convincing in this latter theme — the icy fingers of the church, acting in concert with the big landowners, close around the heart of the rural poor in Ireland. This conflict is played out between Gralton and the local priest, Father Sheridan (Jim Norton) who leads the local establishment against Gralton and his allies.
While Gralton is portrayed as a secular saint without fault or personal ambition, here making a speech about how the poor must not pay for the financial crisis of 1929 (with the obvious parallel), and there introducing the locals to the sophistication of the world beyond rural Ireland in the form of New York jazz, it is the priest who has depth as a character.
He is an old man who long ago chose to serve a church rooted in a culture of privilege and inequality, but the questions that Gralton poses to him are ones that he cannot resolve, only attempt to repress and control. In contrast no complexity is shown in Gralton’s character; when the priest challenges him on Stalin’s famines and political persecutions, Gralton brushes this aside as something for later.
Loach’s films from Kes (1969) onwards, are at their best when he tells of people and their struggles leaving the greater political context implicit. The less successful side of his film-making comes with movement from personal stories to the larger political picture. This film is no exception. So in Jimmy’s Hall there is an awkward didactic discussion amongst the hall’s trustees about whether they should support a campaign against the eviction of a tenant farming familly. It is much like the uncomfortable discussion about agrarian reform in Loach’s Spanish Civil War film, Land and Freedom (1995).
Loach has suggested this may be his last film (he will be 78 later this month). This is a moving film showing he will be a much missed voice in British film making.