Ken Loach returns to Irish matters with Jimmy’s Hall, a post-Treaty drama that’s too romantic for its own good, says MacDara Conroy
Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to really dig into the heart of the matter. Familiarity breeds complacency as much as contempt (John Michael McDonagh’s recent Calvary suffered from being too close to its subject matter) so it’s always a worthy, if not necessarily fruitful, exercise to let in a more objective observer to cut through the bullshit. In the case of Jimmy’s Hall it’s Britain’s kitchen-sink auteur Ken Loach, who once again collaborates with screenwriter Paul Laverty for a return to themes previously tackled in their well-received Irish war drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
Set a decade after that affecting slice of life amid strife, the opening credits run against a backdrop of Roaring Twenties USA, where many an Irishman fleeing the struggles of home went to find their fortune – among them the real-life Jimmy Gralton, whose left-wing activism in the decidedly conservative environs of post-Treaty Ireland rubbed the local clergy the wrong way, leading to his infamy as the only Irish citizen ever deported from Ireland. We learn some of this via slabs on on-screen text outlining the social and political climate, Loach laying on the exposition thick atop the hokiest of Oirish postcard imagery: the rolling green hills and flat-capped rugged men of the land ploughing the furrows of dirt roads by horse and cart. The sheep bleats you can add yourself.
Anyway, the passenger on that cart is a fictionalised portrayal of Jimmy, played by Aiden Gillen’s doppelgänger Barry Ward, who’s returning to the aul’ sod from the hustle and bustle of a Big Apple in the grips of the Great Depression, supposedly to run his frail mother’s farm yet with no real rhyme or reason. But he soon finds purpose; or rather, purpose finds him, when he’s press-ganged by the over-enthusiastic local youth into reopening the Pearse-Connolly Hall he had built on family land in those heady days of revolutionary fervour.
Brushing off the cobwebs and roping in some of his former comrades – including old flame Oonagh (Simone Kirby) – to give the hall a new lease of life, soon enough the wild céilí dances and extracurricular classes are back on the schedule, only now with some added jazz steps, much to the chagrin of the local parish priest (an unfortunately cast Jim ‘Bishop Brennan’ Norton, who spends much of the film poised for a kick up the arse) and his armed cronies, fronted by the starched-stiff, daughter-beating land dispossessor O’Keefe (Brian F O’Byrne). The stage is set for a confrontation that can only end in tears.
And ‘stage’ is the word for it, as there’s a theatricality to the whole enterprise that’s a poor fit for the screen, from stagey set-pieces like a spotlit moonlight dance in an empty hall, to the corny projecting by the stage-school brats in the cast, and an overpowering score by George Fenton with near-comical leitmotifs. But there are moments, where the overwrought gives way to cinéma vérité, that bring some much needed authenticity; when Loach’s camera revolves around a heated political discussion, voices overlapping with passion and conviction, that’s where the film really comes to life.
Elsewhere, I’ll grant it, Loach jumps clear of some typical narrative traps – for instance, not allowing the embers of Jimmy and Oonagh’s past romance to flicker into flame. Their aforementioned moonlight waltz is all the more tender for their resolve in keeping their passions in check; they’re not about to destroy all that they’ve rebuilt.
But the overall feel is of a smothering romanticism, casting the socialist Jimmy and his supporters as faithful adherents to a brighter, more egalitarian future for Ireland, and their opposition in the Church/State establishment variously as ineffectual moral arbiters (with kids running out of Mass in fits of laughter as the priest reads of his ‘list of shame’) or Keystone Cops (a scene where Jimmy gives some local guards the runaround sets the tone lower than necessary).
Yet at the time this film is set, in the early 1930s, so-called ‘unmarried mothers’ and their children were being removed from their families in countless numbers to the ‘mercy’ of religious orders throughout the land. Only this week we’ve heard the story of that mass grave in Tuam bearing the remains of hundreds of infant children, dumped and forgotten by institutions who continued to destroy lives unabated for many decades more. Gralton’s kind may have given us a different history, one to be proud of, but they were more heavily outmatched than this film implies. There was no laughing in the face of Mother Church; it was the industrial school or the Magdalen laundry for you.
Jimmy’s Hall only emphasises the increasing impossibility, after all we know now, to feel any nostalgia for a history that brought so much horror upon this island’s people. To paraphrase the words of the great WB Yeats from 100 years ago: romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, it’s with 800 dead babies in an unmarked grave.