Nuance might be a feature of Ken Loach’s work that has long since left the building, but that’s not to say his latest work doesn’t fail to charm. The story of James “Jimmy” Gralton, the only Irishman to be deported from his own country, has Loach on tempestuous, didactic form, parleyed by sensitive performances from its cast that give more depth than Paul Laverty’s agitprop script seems to give. Jimmy’s Hall (2014), like the second half of its closest Loach relative, The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), pits itself in the aftermath of the Irish war of independence and the awkward political situation of Ireland in the early 1920s, where the progressive branches of republicanism were just as buried as they were under the British.
Socialist Jimmy (Barry Ward) is one of that clan, and sets up a local community hall in County Leitrim where the local poor can learn, debate, read poetry and, to the shock of the local pastor, dance. Its existence provokes the ire of the local landowners, and Gralton forces himself into exile in New York not least because of “a few pistol boys wanting to make a name for themselves”. Ten years later he returns to Ireland, ostensibly for a quiet life taking care of his ageing mother (Eileen Henry), but soon the local youngsters ask Jimmy to live up to his legend and re-open the now derelict hall. They’re stuck in the 1930s depression, unemployed and representing a new Irish state made stale by the near-feudal system that remains. The hall soon becomes the centre of dispute between the community, the Church and landowners.
Ward is a charming Jimmy, sensitive at points but easily sympathetic as a mouthpiece of the downtrodden. Ward’s strength is in his ability to be coolly observant, to draw the eye of the audience to him (both in the film and in the cinema), and an ability to speak at subtly different registers to the community and to the men who aspire to control it. Loach may make his points in a heavy-handed fashion, with lords of the manors who beat their daughters and a pantomime villain pastor, but he draws commendable performances from it. As Father Sheridan, Jim Norton’s icy façade melts as Jimmy’s Hall draws to a close, although his declaration early on from the pulpit that Jimmy is “materialistic” is one of the film’s highlights, read by man clad in the decadent trappings of his faith. His fire-and-brimstone rhetoric feels even further a cultural association for the locals than the jazz and so-called ‘Los Angelisation’ of Ireland of which the pastor accuses Gralton. Perhaps it would have been better to see Laverty script better-rounded characters from this batch of antagonists – Andrew Scott’s priest is especially left on the wayside as a tacit sympathiser of Gralton’s cause.
To read our interview with Jimmy’s Hall director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty, simply follow this link.