JIMMY'S HALL. Starring: Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Jim Norton, and Aileen Henry. Directed by Ken Loach. Rated M (Coarse language and violence). 109 min.
This Irish-British film, influenced by the friendship between the film's director and the Irish playwright, Donal O'Kelly, tells the story of the deportation of Irish Folk Hero, Jimmy Gralton to the United States in 1933. The film competed for the Palme d'Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, losing to "Winter Sleep".
The film's title refers to a dance Hall in County Leitrim, Ireland, called Pearce-Connolly Hall, which Gralton helped to build originally, and to which he returns.
After spending ten years in the United States, Gralton (Barry Ward) returns to his native Ireland at the close of the Irish Civil War to help his mother, Alice (Aileen Henry), run the family farm. Lured by memories of his old Hall, Jimmy decides to open a young people's centre in the Hall where people in his county can "learn, listen, laugh and dance". The leaders of Ireland at the time did not want a dance hall for enjoyment, nor did they want a building where the young and the not-so-young could be educated in an open way.
Bringing with him the influence of jazz music from the USA, and a strong commitment to free education, Jimmy's popularity and radical ideas offend the ruling class represented by land owners in the county, and influential members of the Catholic Church, such as the county's Parish Priest, Father Sheridan (Jim Norton) - who believed passionately that "Education was the exclusive preserve of the Holy Mother Church". Major tensions erupt. The young people want the freedom of the activities that Jimmy is encouraging, and as his Hall grows in popularity, it becomes a symbol in his enemies' mind of the presence of moral decline, Godless influence, and communist activism.
Jimmy was expelled from Ireland to America a decade after he came back, and before he left his Hall was burned to the ground. He was regarded as too reactionary to be tolerated; he was associated with conflicts that told the authorities unacceptably that the Irish were fearful of their Church; and he was seen as a Communist. He was deported without trial.
Ken Loach, the Director of this film, is respected widely for his naturalistic observations and provocative analyses of social-political causes. In this film, like others he has directed (such as his prize-winning "The Wind That Shakes The Barley", 2006; and "Hidden Agenda", 1990), Loach expresses his feelings and opinions through the conflicts experienced by his characters. Here, core tensions are communicated through the fights that occurred between Jimmy and Father Sheridan, who tells his flock from the pulpit that Jimmy is luring the young away from the Church sinfully with his anti-Christ, socialist ideals. Jazz to Father Sheridan is the devil's music, and he regards Jimmy as impervious to the Church's control.
The film has many powerful and telling moments. Jimmy's slow dance with Oonagh (Simone Kirby), the childhood sweetheart he still loves, who is now married to another man, is a poetic moment filmed with sombre grey lighting that provides a moving commentary on two people attracted to each other in unsettled times. The dramatic relationship that is most significant in the movie, however, is Jimmy's relationship to Father Sheridan. The freedom of learning that is important to Jimmy is contrasted sharply with the punitive condemnation of the Church, represented by Father Sheridan. Both combatants admire each other grudgingly, but they are locked into bitter battle with each other.
The film is constructed thoughtfully and carefully, and photographed vividly. Though Ireland at the time was an unsettled country, the overall tone of the movie is paradoxically enthusiastic. The movie starts and ends with jazz dance tunes, and it effectively links joyful sounds with issues like poverty, discrimination, and political hypocrisy. Barry Ward captures compellingly the infectious charm of Jimmy Gralton, though Jim Norton's fierce portrayal of Father Sheridan creates an exaggerated character.
Loach tells his story about Gralton in a very engaging and spirited way. The film leaves questions unanswered about the reasons why people behave in the way they do, but it is well directed, scripted and acted and it has the help of a group of unprofessional actors, who bring the look of wonderful Irish authenticity to their roles.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released November 27th., 2014