Many period dramas about Ireland have portrayed the British as the primary villains, but they play only a peripheral role in Ken Loach’s “Jimmy’s Hall.” Loach’s film, like several others of recent vintage, point an accusing finger instead at the Catholic Church, which enjoyed a dominant role in Irish politics—and the country’s socio-economic affairs—for centuries until relatively recently. As Irish conditions have changed and the church’s influence has waned—culminating in the adoption of a more liberal abortion policy in 2013 and this year’s referendum allowing same-sex marriage—the power that ecclesiastical authorities wielded in the past has come under increased scrutiny and criticism, and Loach’s picture is part of that pattern.
Paul Laverty’s script is a loosely fact-based biographical account of Jimmy Gralton, a rural leftist leader who in 1933 became the only person of Irish birth deported from his native land; the grounds were that he had earlier immigrated to the United States and taken U.S. citizenship, but the real reason for his forced removal was that he posed a threat to the status quo in County Leitrim, the region on the border with Northern Ireland. Coming from a large family on a hardscrabble farm, he’d been introduced to republican politics even before he emigrated to the States in 1909 in his early twenties. He returned in 1922 to fight in the war of independence (1918-21) that resulted in the creation of the Irish Free State, but then went back to America, returning again in 1932 to care for his mother.
The film is set entirely in 1932-33 as Gralton (Barry Ward) is welcomed back by his stout, supportive mom (Aileen Henry) and old friends but regarded with suspicion by authority figures like Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), who, as pastor of the local parish, is one of the area’s most powerful figures. He and other local notables are concerned when Jimmy reopens the ramshackle rural community center he’d run during his earlier stay—a place where people could gather to talk and dance freely, and where—Father Sheridan is certain—promiscuity and, even worse, atheistic communist propaganda will flourish. Sheridan is especially nonplussed over Jimmy’s introduction of jazz to the community, which he believes not only threatens traditional Irish culture but has irreligious overtones. “Is it Christ or is it Gralton?” he asks his flock.
That’s what initiates his campaign against Jimmy’s hall, during which he goes so far as to take down the names of people who frequent the place and denounce them publicly from his pulpit at Sunday mass. It’s a tactic that can have brutal results—one conservative father, a community leader, whips his daughter fiercely after she giggles over her name being read—and continues despite Gralton’s attempts to seek a compromise with the priest. Matters are exacerbated by Jimmy’s participation in sometimes abrasive protests against wealthy landowners who are forcibly evicting tenant farmers from their land.
The turmoil is, of course, counterbalanced by a romantic subplot about the tortured attraction between Jimmy and his former sweetheart Oonagh (Simone Kirby), who married in his absence. Their relationship leads to some touching moments, as when they share a late-night dance together in the moonlight—but the fact that it’s an entirely fictional plot element is reflective of the fact that however much one might agree with Loach’s political and economic messages, his film is a very manipulative piece that turns Gralton’s story into a sort of Gaelic “Footloose” with ideological overtones, periodically expressed in debate-style dialogue scenes that weigh things down to a crawl.
To be sure, the film does attempt to mitigate the rather simplistic dichotomy it’s drawn between Jimmy’s naïve idealism and Sheridan’s staunch conservatism by pairing the older priest with an assistant (Andrew Scott) who expresses more tolerant, progressive views, and by signaling somewhat of a change of heart in Sheridan himself as Gralton is hauled away for deportation. But these touches—as well as the Keystone Kops treatment of the cops sent to arrest Jimmy—don’t do much to alter the reality that Loach is sending the same activist message that’s animated all of his films, and using Gralton’s life to do so baldly.
If you’re willing to overlook the heavy-handedness, and the fact that the film doesn’t make the various factions within the populace as clear as it might, however, “Jimmy’s Hall” provides real pleasures. As a result of the efforts of production designer Fergus Clegg, art director Stephen Daly and costume designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh, it establishes an evocative sense of place, and Robbie Ryan’s lustrous camerawork does their work, and the gorgeous locations, full justice. There are some energetic dance scenes that invigorate the tale. And the performances (especially by Ward and Norton, but also by supporting players like Henry) do much to put the story across despite its obvious didacticism.
The result isn’t one of Loach’s more notable films, but even a lesser effort from him is worth seeing.