Veteran British director Ken Loach makes what could to be his narrative curtain call with Irish political period piece Jimmy’s Hall (2014), which premièred at this year’s 67th Cannes Film Festival. Operating within his comfort zone, Loach wants to educate and inspire the workers, but has ended up with something entirely workmanlike. It’s the 1930s and Ireland has finally achieved some semblance of peace. Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) is a communist activist who returns from political exile in New York to County Leitrim, his old ma and peat-cutting with his pals. “A far cry from Broadway,” one notes, but it isn’t long before Jimmy is busying himself with reopening a local music and debate venue.
Boxing bouts, dance classes and reading groups begin to take place once more following a brief flashback to the initial building of the hall. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s feelings towards an old flame, Oonagh (Simone Kirby), sputter back into life despite her now being married with children. Of course, the local priest Father Sheridan (Jim Norton) is appalled. “What is this craving for pleasure?”, the baffled old man asks in a sermon before reading out the names of all who have attended the previous evening’s dance. More dangerous are the local landowners, the police, the newly-established IRA and other assorted villains. One of them, the appropriately moustachioed Commander O’Keefe (played by Brían F. O’Byrne), even horsewhips his own daughter for having the temerity to visit the recently rebuilt Pearse-Connolly.
The characters of Jimmy’s Hall aren’t really characters as much as archetypes: the saintly mother, the sweetheart, the hero, the villain. This is the kind of film where people don’t argue – they debate – speaking in lines from manifestos and creating an incongruity. Jimmy’s explanation for his preferring Ireland to New York is that “no one orders him around”, yet given his recent history and the troubles he already sees on the horizon this seems numbingly naïve. In fact, for a full-time political activist, Gralton is remarkably passive and insipid. There’s no fire in his belly, no anger in his heart. When he’s called upon to help some evicted tenants reclaim their property, he opens the whole thing up for debate and then seems to let everyone else decide for him. The script from from regular Loach collaborator Paul Laverty feels airless, as if nothing much is at stake. Likewise, the pair contrive to have the decision to reopen the hall feel like something Jimmy has been pushed into. This is a classic screenwriting ploy, but sits awkwardly with a supposed political freedom fighter.
When Gralton does get up to give a speech, Laverty is so concerned that we, the audience, understand the contemporary echoes of the Wall Street Crash that he forgets Jimmy’s actual audience are perhaps going to be more inspired if he says something about Ireland and the land problem – the reason they’re actually there. At least Loach’s latest looks the part thanks to Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, while George Fenton’s score offers up a mix of period jazz and traditional Irish music. The actors do their best with the ideospeak, but only Norton gets anything out of his part as a priest who recognises in his adversary a nobler man than many of his allies. Even Sheridan seems underdeveloped and a sop to the Catholic Church. In Loach’s Ireland there’s not much drinking, no real dissension and little humour beyond a cheery camaraderie. Jimmy’s Hall may have been built with the best of intentions, but it’s in desperate need of a craic or two.