Film classics: Irish socialist portrayed in ‘Jimmy’s Hall’

March 2017 Jimmy's HallBy ANNE-MARIE MONTEBELLO

“Jimmy’s Hall,” a film by Ken Loach.

The word hall, in this Franco-British-Irish film from 2014, is understood in French to mean dance hall. But it is much more than this. It is a meeting place, a place of learning, drawing, music, boxing, literature, and also of course a place to dance and celebrate in a country where popular music, of high quality, and the accompanying dances have played a major role up to this day.

Jimmy introduces the sounds and rhythms he discovered during his 10-year exile in the United States, particularly those of Black music. James Gralton—Jimmy to his close friends—was forced to go into exile when confronted by local landowners and the police. [In real life, Gralton joined the Communist Party while living in New York, and later joined the (Stalinist) Revolutionary Workers Group in Ireland. After being deported, he rejoined the CP in New York, and died in 1945.—editors]

In 1932 Gralton returns to his village in County Leitrim, from where the English were evicted less than 20 years earlier. He decides to settle down and work the land, while staying with his elderly mother. We quickly realize that the villagers have not forgotten him and that they expect a lot of him—notably his authorization to repair the dance-hall premises they had built together and which are now falling to pieces.

The situation has not changed. Unemployment, landless farmers on very extensive property, eviction of sharecroppers unable to pay the outrageous rents they are charged, oppression by the Roman Catholic Church personified by a belligerent priest who dictates from the pulpit what is to be done or not done, and who singles out Jimmy, whom he would like to banish from the village.

In those years the Catholic Church had a monopoly on education—a privilege that was contested by the lessons offered by the Hall free of charge. The same causes produce the same effects—confrontation is near, all the more since in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant workers have come together against their exploiters, inducing the greatest concerns among the employers and the clergy is obsessed, not without reason, by the fear of communism.

The film could have been dry. Quite to the contrary, it is full of strength and energy, punctuated by sequences of dancing. The colour is beautiful, the landscapes are gentle, and the characters, without being fashion models, possess an aura that radiates. What we are talking about here are the villagers with their lovely, recognizable accent—not the landowners haunted by fear and hatred. It should be noted the police who are chasing Jimmy, without abandoning their brutality, are ill at ease in these fights against people belonging to a world from which they come.

Ken Loach is known not to dissociate the political discourse from artistic expression, be it the light in which it was filmed or the camera employed. The point of view often advanced is that of the teenagers by whom Jimmy is surrounded, and in whom burns the desire to escape the oppression of money and morality. There’s also a romantic scenario, both discreet, and of a great emotional intensity. As in Irish ballads, when returning from exile, Jimmy has found his sweetheart already married and the mother of two children.

The screenwriter says he wanted to move beyond the idealized image of the activist. And the character portrayed by actor Barry Ward is anything but a caricature. Sensitive and fun-loving, he hesitates when his incredible skill as a speaker is solicited.

Political discussion is present on different levels: With the villagers, always threatened with repression and who wonder about the action they should take. With the prominent citizens, for the opposite reasons. And potentially with the clergy, where the reflections of a young priest disturb the old vicar, who nevertheless remains on the side of the landowners.

Debates take place between the two sides, but they could be better described as denunciations rather than as debates. Their aim is to convince their own partisans, more than their adversaries. The situation is indisputably that of class struggle.

Jimmy’s Hall is not the first film Ken Loach dedicated to Ireland and its political and social fights. “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” (2006) was about the 1919-1921 war of independence, and the civil war of 1922-1923 that followed. It earned him the Palme d’Or in Cannes. “Wind” scriptwriter Paul Laverty also wrote this latest film.

Ken Loach claims he likes documentaries. He produced here a beautiful cinematic achievement that both accounts for history, and gives it the tribute of fine fiction artistry.