Jimmy’s Hall (Ireland-UK 2014)

Paul Laverty (left) and Ken Loach on set for JIMMY'S HALL

Paul Laverty (left) and Ken Loach on set for JIMMY’S HALL

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.)

The local priest making a note of all the locals attending 'Jimmy's Hall' – so he can denounce them from the pulpit!

The local priest making a note of all the locals attending ‘Jimmy’s Hall’ – so he can denounce them from the pulpit!

A typical Loach-Laverty scene – the community who run and use the hall discuss their plans for collective action.

A typical Loach-Laverty scene – the community who run and use the hall discuss their plans for collective action.

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.

A romantic moment in this warm and uplifting film.

A romantic moment in this warm and uplifting film.

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.

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7 comments

  1. des1967

    You’ve got it spot on, it was an excellent film. You mention the scene in the hall where people debate what has to be done. This was done particularly well, as it was in Land and Freedom. Is there such a scene in The Wind That Shakes The Barley? I don’t recall.

    Jimmy’s mother is played by a first-time actor called Eileen Henry (according to The Telegraph, which called the film “exasperatingly thin”).

    As for its relationship with Donal O’Kelly’s film, I read an interview with O’Kelly who said that although he put his old friend Laverty onto the Gralton story, his play wasn’t the source but his play actually benefited from Laverty’s research.

    It took me a while to get over the fact that Jim Norton who plays the parish priest also played Bishop Brennan in one of the funniest episodes of Father Ted where Ted has to kick Bishop Brennan, a reactionary and overbearing character as he was in the film, “up the arse” and then pretend he didn’t. But Norton managed to humanise what could have become a rather stereotyped character.

    • Roy Stafford

      Thanks for the name of the woman who plays the mother. Re the Telegraph, its comment is matched by Neil Young in The Hollywood Reporter who described the film as ‘inert’!

      The equivalent scene in The Wind That Shakes the Barley is the big political discussion which follows the newsreel screening of the Treaty announcement and Teddy’s argument that the group should agree to the Treaty because of the threat of British violence.

  2. keith1942

    I enjoyed the film and it is pretty good, and recognisable as a Loach/Laverty film.
    However, i did find the politics rather underdeveloped.
    The film does not explain the significance of the change of government in Eire. And apart from the word ‘communist’ in the dialogue and some left-wing newspapers there is not a lot of communist politics.
    My major concern was how the basic conflict is between the Jimmy and his group and the church. The film does draw the connection between the bourgeoisie [full and petty] but the conflict is personalised by the priest and Jimmy.
    I thought that The Wind that Shakes the Barley dealt with this better.
    There are fine scenes, like the deabte in the hall – but this reworks similar scenes in earlier films.

    • Roy Stafford

      There is an explanation in the text on screen during the credits and some dialogue between Jimmy and Mossy when Jimmy first returns – although I did find it difficult to process all the information the first time round.

      I don’t agree that the conflict is only with the church – or only personalised between Jimmy and the priest. O’Keefe is a key character as one of the pro-Treaty IRA who has married into a landowning family. He and Jimmy have a personal conflict, partly through his treatment of his daughter.

      Although related to The Wind . . . it is a different kind of film and therefore I expected and got a different approach to the political. I feel that this is more about families and community (and music and dance) – cultural as well as economic questions.

  3. keith1942

    Roy is right about the title, but it does not explain matters. It is true that we see the church, the landowners and the IRA involvement, but the ‘unholy’ class alliance is not clearly presented.
    And the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups [later the Communist Party] is conspicuously absent.
    I felt that The Wind that Shakes the Barley did a better job on politics. Loach tends to use melodramas of protest, with conflicts embodied in central characters – I think these need to be contexualised to make sure the politics are fully presented.

    • Roy Stafford

      We’ll just have to disagree as usual Keith. I think audiences will find the politics (whatever they understand them to be) in the story and I suspect that Loach and Laverty will be pleased that they do.

  4. Robert English

    It’s difficult for any socially progressive (read that “socialist”) themed film to get traction. You have to consider the influence and source of the reviews. The “Indo” is pretty much an editorially right-wing paper. “Conservative” they’d call it.

    They don’t want people getting uppity ideas like “collective action”. Threatens the stability of the establishment. Can’t have that, now, can we?

    I thought the film was excellent, but then, I’m a commie-pinko-lefist-socialist-threat.
    And glad as hell that I am. ;-)

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