Title: Jimmy’s Hall
Director: Ken Loach
Major Players: Barry Ward, Jim Norton, Andrew Scott
Out Of Five: 3.5
Is Ken Loach mellowing? After the gritty warmth of his Scottish comedy, The Angel’s Share, he’s now returned to the Ireland of the first half of the last century. And, while there’s an argument for Jimmy’s Hall being a companion piece for his Palme D’Or winner, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, the two films are remarkably different.
Returning home from America to care for his elderly mother, Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) is looking for the quiet life. But his friends and neighbours refuse to let him forget his past. He was behind building a hall that became a place of entertainment and education for the impoverished villagers. Now it’s boarded up and neglected, but Jimmy soon finds himself under pressure to re-open it – despite opposition from powerful enemies.
It may be set mainly in the early 30s but the film has strong contemporary resonances, not the least of which is the recent economic crisis. Back from an American suffering from the great depression, Jimmy gives a speech to the locals about his experiences overseas. Yet he could easily be talking about the present day Irish economy or, indeed, several others in Europe. The issues are still the same: young people with difficult job prospects, immigration to find work, poverty and the struggle to escape it. Very little seems to have changed.
The Roman Catholic Church is another target, but not for the scandal that’s dogged it in recent years. Here, the issue is its dominance of rural communities, expecting to be obeyed without question. Father Sheridan (an excellent Jim Norton) is its representative in the village and he’s almost obsessed with controlling the lives of his flock. So when the hall is re-opened, he compiles a list of everybody going to the opening dance. As if that’s not heavy handed enough, he then reads out all the names on that list from the pulpit the following Sunday to humiliate everybody involved and it results in one teenage girl being beaten by her father. Sheridan is counterbalanced by his young curate, Father Seamus (Andrew Scott) who is of a more tolerant mind set and openly worries that his fellow cleric might be doing more harm than good.
So, a set of familiar themes and targets for Loach, but the tone is not what you would expect. It’s optimistic, gentle and, at times, even romantic. Not only is it unexpected, it’s not a wholly comfortable fit with the film’s themes. Poverty is rife in the village, life is hard and the young people have little to do and nowhere to go yet strangely we only see glimpses of this. The closest we come is when a family is evicted from their home by a local landowner, or when we see the young people dancing in the open air. And the latter couldn’t have happened frequently, given the typical Irish climate. So you wonder what the left wing Jimmy is fighting for.
Women are especially romanticised. Jimmy’s mother is warm and dutiful, the kind of person anybody would want to be their granny. And then there’s Oonagh, Jimmy’s first and only love. Their relationship is already growing when he leaves for the States in the 20s. When he returns ten years later, she’s married with two children, but their love hasn’t gone away. It is, however, remarkably chaste and they never even get as far as a kiss. Even more incongruously, the dress Jimmy brings her as a present from the States turns out to be a perfect fit, despite the two not having seen each other for years. It’s perilously close to a cliché.
It all makes for a softer Loach than usual, one taking a gentler approach to issues that are just as tough and important today as they were in the last century. Could this be Loach’s last film, as the rumours would have it? I’m seriously hoping not. I’d love to see such a ground breaking and distinguished director go out on a real high and, engaging though Jimmy’s Hall may be, this isn’t it.
Jimmy’s Hall is released around the UK on Friday, 30 May.