Ken Loach has never been a filmmaker to shy away from politics. In fact, a case could be made that the reason he makes films is to explore politics, the which he has done with such strident films as BREAD AND ROSES (union organizing in contemporary Los Angeles) and LAND AND FREEDOM (the Spanish Civil War in theory in practice), and with films such as SWEET SIXTEEN and THE ANGEL’S SHARE, both films about contemporary British youth with no economic future that are more character-, rather than ideology-driven. Visually, Loach has always been masterful, creating powerful, indelible images, but narratively, I found him hard to take in his early days. Maybe it was the way politics served story, not the other way around. Maybe it was the way in those ci-mentioned earlier films, it was a reedy, privileged outsider of a guy who swooped into the situation full of good intentions but little savvy and ended up saving the strong and resourceful woman living the injustice Loach’s film was relating. In JIMMY’S HALL, written for the screen by SWEET SIXTEEN and THE ANGEL’S SHARE Paul Laverty from the play by Donal O’Kelly, Loach has reached a sublime nexus between true stories of institutional injustice and the fully-developed characters that make the film more than mere reportage, and, moreover, stunningly photographed.
Bathed in the warm light and lush greens of 1932 Ireland, where the eponymous Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) has returned to his home village after a decade away in New York. Leaving hadn’t been all his idea. He’d run into political trouble during the 1922 Civil War, and while his return is met with delight from his mother (Aileen Henry), and glee from the high-spirited daughter (Aisling Franciosi) of the local landlord, it’s met with suspicion from Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), the local priest who is not amused by Jimmy’s Marxist politics, and the sort of mixed emotions from Oonagh (Simone Kirby), the girl he left behind, that are to be expected in a woman who has gotten on with her life while never quite getting over Jimmy.
The story starts with Jimmy’s return, and gradually fills in the backstory with perfectly timed flashbacks that give form to what is so beautifully implied in a present that is, of course, inextricably tied to what came before. It centers on the titular hall, a private concern on Jimmy’s land that has fallen into disrepair during his absence, but which he is determined to restore. It’s a dicey decision. As a gathering place outside the purview of church or state, it represents radically different things to different people. For Father Sheridan, it’s the sense that he is losing his iron hold on his parish. For Jimmy and the villagers, it’s a place to dance to hot jazz without the disapproving glares found at church functions; to teach music and literature without a priori censorship about what can be discussed; to teach boys how to box. For Father Sheridan, it’s war, and soon he is using his influence to close the hall down, while the local landlord is using his influence to stop Jimmy’s organizing of the locals into a force that will prevent him from throwing long-term tenants off his land at will.
Yes, there are plenty of politics going on here, but the issues that have caught Loach’s attention arise from the situations in which these characters find themselves. There are not symbols, but rather real people struggling for what most consider the betterment of everyone. If the landlord is never more than an imperious bloodsucker, the priest is given more room for expression, and even humanizing. He is plainly a victim of his ingrained ideology, one that has left him with no alternative than the actions he takes, almost as a reflex. As the voice of reason, we are given a younger priest (Andrew Scott) to play Father Sheridan’s Devil’s Advocate, and the interplay between them is an incisive, even compassionate, dissection of why the orthodoxy can be so deeply ingrained, and why it can also be its own worst enemy.
And that’s why this film is so compelling. It remains firmly on a very human level for all the dialectics at work, there is pain in the stoicism of men and women ground down with poverty, and a veritable apotheosis of ethical struggle summed up in a slow dance between Jimmy and Oona as they twirl slowly in a dreamy half-light of old regrets and new passion.
Based on actual events, as they say, the specifics of the political and social struggles of Ireland 80 years ago have a decided resonance today, and this can’t be a coincidence. The status quo brooks no dissent. The poor are exploited by the ruling classes, and cynically pitted against one another for trivial differences (in this case religion) in order to keep them from joining together against their real enemy. And one man standing up can start a chain of events that can shake society to its roots.