With Director Ken Loach’s final film, we are invited into the life of Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward), a comfortably curled communist and genuinely good bloke. Meant as a powerful ode to an Ireland of more turbulent times, Jimmy’s Hall is set in 1932: a decade after the Irish civil war and the seismic tremors of the newly independent Republic. The film charts the parallel successes of Jimmy and, well, glaringly obviously, the hall that bears his name (there is no misnomer here). Our eponymous hero, Jimmy, is a sprouting evergreen of grass roots activism, growing tall after ten years of exile in New York, owing to his overtly leftish political leaning. After his return, he sets about restoring himself within the small, but saintly, flock of the rustic salt-of-the-earth types who treat these verdant Irish fields as pasture and desperately crave their shepherd in the form of Gralton’s leadership. They find shelter in the modest shelter of Jimmy’s Hall, which in the years after Yewtree, is fortunately not a Jim’ll Fix It spin-off, but the pearly white idealisation of an early learning centre, served with a jazz main course and smatterings of Marx. On surveying the board of directors of the community centre, there is a glorious cross section of socialist stereotypes: the more vocal activist, younger and pin-striped in his forcefulness, the swept back working class grease of the gnarled, wizened, seen-it-all-before, traditionalist, and, of course, the love interest.
Of ten years vintage, Oonagh (Simone Kirby), reliably awaits Jimmy and, despite the dislocation of the latter and the settled nature of the former, complete with husband and two children, the actors, to their credit, convey the pathos of an impossible requited relationship as it matures into a more tender, platonic longing. The emotional climax of their relationship arc is the beauty of a silent, moonlit waltz on the empty dance floor of the hall, which is sensitively played by the pair. The film is not a vapid romantic ditty; the conceit is the centrality of community and the significance of places in which we can live, learn and breathe together, the paragon of which is Jimmy’s Hall. Although the political relevance between 1932 and 2014 is sprayed on with an almighty canister, reading CONTEMPORARY on its nozzle, with the crash of 1929 and the depression of the early thirties looming large across the piece, Loach’s primary message is far more sweet and sumptuous: the power of the people, or rather the potential. It is an age old, overly simplistic refrain, but makes for easy viewing, especially when combined with the panoramic vistas which wrap a snug verdant wool coat around the narrative. It is fringed with tweed, but never stoops to twee, as the rural folk roam the fields in customary attire.
The film lacks any semblance of nuance in its blacker than black and white portrayal of the forces of authority versus those of Jimmy’s tide of enlightenment. Jimmy’s reputation is unblemished, whereas Jim Norton as Father Sheridan, whipping on a dog collar again in a reprisal of his razor sharp Bishop Brennan in Father Ted, is surely wasted in the monochrome portrait of the establishment. The church, the traditional bulwark of society is left dangling on the noose and perhaps deservedly so, but it leaves a bitter taste as an all too easy contrast of good, bordering on sacrosanct in Jimmy and the bad, borderline police state backroom dealings of the priesthood. The only beacon of light comes in the form of Andrew Scott’s Father Seamus. Even his moral compass is only employed to further condemn the loss of perspective and abject failures of the senior leadership. Still, the sight of Moriarty the Priest offers a true laugh in a film that avoids outright humour. Saying that, one of the two finest scenes is funny as Jimmy’s mother, an excellent debut from Aileen Henry, offers Jimmy’s captors, the policemen escorting him into exile, tea and custody; under pretence of a friendly cuppa, she locks them within the croft enabling Jimmy’s escape. This leaves each officer scrambling out of the tight window like a fat cat through a too small cat flap.
The finest cinema is reserved for the genius with which Loach intertwines a sequence of scenes, juxtaposing the opposing worlds of hall and church. Jimmy’s celebratory dance night in the hall is interspersed with the following day sermon of Father Sheridan as he denounces those present at Jimmy the antichrist’s seemingly innocent, but morally offensive event. The hilarity of the church’s umbrage is all too much for one of the young dancers, whose giggle fit leads to an acrimonious and shameful exit from the church. Her father happens to be the other authority figure pariah of this Irish community, O’ Keefe, who uses his daughter as an outlet for his rage. The mood of levity cast in the preceding scenes abruptly recedes and acts as a counterbalance to the gravity of the only truly shocking scene as O’Keefe brutally lacerates his own daughter with whip. She acts as the proxy through whom he vents the angst directed towards the vices that Jimmy breeds. This cowshed whipping scene represents the horrible resolution of the conflict between Jimmy’s modernism and the engrained insular protectionism of the establishment.
The quality of these scenes points to an artistic flame still strong within Ken Loach’s creativity, which burns as brightly as Jimmy’s Hall. In the age of the flaming parody of the so-called ‘Big Society’; the intensive incubation of a sadly long lost community feel, an attempt rendered useless by the cuts to public spending which make places like Jimmy’s Hall a relic of a bygone era. It is a blessing to escape for a while amidst the ghosts of what ‘society’ and ‘community’, catchwords of policy, could be and most probably were once like. Now these words are tools for the social historian.