Watching Jimmy’s Hall was an absolute joy. After reading some lukewarm reviews I was delighted to find that this is a film full of energy and wit as well as great music and dancing – and some serious insights into the repression of collective action in a conservative, rural society. Some critics have discussed it as a ‘minor’ work. Loach himself says the titular hall is a ‘microcosm’ (of the struggles of working people in rural Ireland). I would say that it is a film to inspire audiences with a belief in collective work and community-based art and culture.
Jimmy Gralton was a local hero in County Leitrim in the early 1920s and again in the early 1930s and has become an iconic figure for some on the Irish left with several books and a play about his exploits – which Paul Laverty lists among his sources. Laverty’s script is ‘true’ to all the public aspects of Gralton’s story but elements of his private and personal life have been invented to suit the construction of the narrative. The film opens with Gralton’s return to County Leitrim in 1932 some ten years after he left for New York as one of the ‘anti-treaty’ losing warriors in the Irish Civil War. Now, one of the other ‘losers’ Eamon de Valera is heading a new government in the Free State and Gralton believes he can return safely. As soon as he is home he begins to hear pleas that he should re-open the community hall (the Pearse-Connolly Hall named after two Republican heroes) built by local voluntary labour on the Gralton family’s land. (Flashbacks then show us the hall being built.)
Gralton’s home is in one of the least-populated counties in Ireland (50,000 in the 1930s – a third of what it was at the time of the famine in the 1840s but nearly three times what it is now). There is no work and little to do – young people especially want to revive the dances, boxing gym and poetry and art classes. The hall re-opens and life improves but Gralton has enemies and it is this opposition that has attracted Laverty and Loach to his story. The opposition is led by the Catholic Church and the landowners – and also by the right-wingers from the pro-treaty IRA. Loach and Laverty have acknowledged that film is certainly linked to The Wind That Shakes the Barley. As Loach argues, after a colonial struggle any newly independent country can change its flag and ditch the trappings of imperialism but it’s much more difficult to change who has status in the community and who has control over what happens. Jimmy Gralton discovers that the old enemies are still in power. This is neatly summed up in a typical Loach-Laverty scene when the priest and the landowner meet to scupper Gralton.
In some ways, Jimmy’s Hall has a similar address to audiences as the Loach-Allen film Land and Freedom (1995). We know Gralton can’t ‘win’ – Loach is not a romantic and his films are rooted in historical accuracy (though not a history recognised by right-wingers). But what films like this do offer is a sense of the right way to organise, the possibilities of collective action, the pleasures of working (and playing) together and a clear analysis of what the enemy is up to. The strength of the film is that the priest is at once an oppressor, but also a thinking man who respects Gralton as an enemy. It’s interesting that the crucial ‘lever’ that the priest uses is to denounce American jazz and blues as the ‘devil’s music’. All kinds of metaphors are wrapped up in this stance – and the fact that Gralton brings in jazz to play alongside traditional Irish music, including music for dancing. The tragedy is that the reactionary forces in rural Ireland were set up to triumph over collective action. This is an important historical lesson that I hope younger people are able to learn from.
The Cannes Press Conference for Jimmy’s Hall is interesting in terms of Loach’s thoughts on what cinema can achieve. I think he would agree that young people in rural Ireland in particular were stifled by the Church up to at least the 1980s but that since then the international corporations with their movements of capital that first built up and then knocked down the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy have taken over as the oppressors. In case all of this sounds like hard work I should add that Laverty has created a ‘secret romance’ between Gralton and the woman he left ten years ago and who is now married with children. Simone Kirby plays Oonagh delightfully and she and Barry Ward as Jimmy make a handsome couple.
Jimmy’s other love is his mother. So far I haven’t managed to find out who the actress is (or perhaps she is one of Loach’s non-actors?). Either way she is terrific, as are all the other cast members. I saw the film a second time on a trip to Ireland. I was worried that a second viewing might reveal flaws, but I enjoyed just as much, if not more so. Rumours circulated before Cannes that this would be the last Ken Loach fiction feature. Ken is 77 now and losing the sight in one eye (see Danny Leigh’s interview in the Guardian). A major feature is tiring and stressful but I hope he can make another one. If he can’t, I think Jimmy’s Hall is a good swansong. Ignore gainsayers, this is the goods. More reviews of Ken Loach et al to follow.