Ken Loach is a popular figure in Liverpool, as his sell-out appearance at FACT last year to talk about his documentary film The Spirit of 45 proved. There was another near-capacity audience at the cinema recently for a preview of his latest film Jimmy’s Hall, which premiered at Cannes earlier this month and opens in UK cinemas on 30 May.
The film’s based on fact and is set in rural Ireland in 1932, a period in Irish history that’s generally been overlooked by filmmakers. It’s nearly 20 years since the Easter Rising, and 10 years since the Irish Civil War. Ireland has its independence and there’s a new government, but the atmosphere is one of uneasy peace, with wealthy English landowners continuing to evict families when the mood takes them and splits among those who fought for the republican cause.
Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward), who was driven out of Ireland during the Civil War, returns to his home village from New York. The local youngsters have heard stories of the dancehall he once ran and urge him to reopen it. He agrees, but Jimmy’s a community activist keen to promote much more than dancing and his hall becomes the centre for everything from art classes to lessons in Gaelic. (The film might well increase your appreciation of the contribution to community life made by the many small, non-profit making halls in our own region.) He also begins to rekindle an old romantic relationship with Oonagh (Simone Kirby), who’s become a wife and mother while he’s been away. As the hall grows in popularity Jimmy makes enemies of several local vested interests, especially when he’s drawn – somewhat reluctantly – into local political conflicts and comes to the aid of a family facing eviction.
As in other Ken Loach films, there’s never any doubt where the director’s sympathies lie, but his great strength has always been his ability to convey his radical message through the construction of compelling human stories. Jimmy’s Hall is up there with his best, a film full of fine acting, sharply written dialogue (by Paul Laverty) and memorable scenes.
If it’s also a film where the heroes and villains are perhaps a little too obvious, the local priest, Father Sheridan, is a more complex figure and arguably the film’s most interesting character. A stern traditionalist who sees the hall as a threat to the power of the established church, he nevertheless recognises Jimmy’s essential decency and the old priest is unsettled when Jimmy tells him he has more hate than love in his heart. Veteran actor Jim Norton (no stranger to playing clerical figures – he was Bishop Brennan in Father Ted) is outstanding in the role. His younger assistant, Father Seamus (played by Sherlock’s Moriarty, Andrew Scott), is more openly sympathetic and in one especially powerful scene tells Jimmy’s opponents their tactics resemble those of the Ku Klux Klan. There’s another superb performance from Francis Magee (a familiar face from numerous film and television roles) as Mossy, a friend of Jimmy’s who’s tough, resourceful and loyal.
The film also features a number of non-professional actors, and notable among these is Aileen Henry, who Loach discovered in an open audition. Rarely without a teapot in her hand, she’s completely believable as Jimmy’s stoical, loving mother and the scene where she uses her simple, unaffected charm to hoodwink a group of Irish police officers is priceless.
There’s so much to like about this film: its humour, its humanity and, despite some desperately sad moments, its essential optimism. Seeing it will not only improve your knowledge of Irish history but also lift your spirits.