As far as films set in Ireland in the early 20th century go, the themes of Jimmy’s Hall are pretty predictable: Catholicism, cultural suppression, social tension and a country torn by politics. These are well-trodden ideas, but director Ken Loach presents a heavy, but true tale of justice, loyalty, rebellion and expectation that needs to be told.
Shot through the director’s characteristically raw socialist lens, the film examines the life of a man returning to small-town in Ireland after a decade exiled in the US during the Depression. Upon his arrival, he is pushed by bored local teens into re-opening an old community hall that led to his deportation. However, just as it had 10 years previously, the church views Jimmy’s return with suspicion and believes his influence is leading people down the path of sin and communism. “The hall is a safe space where we can think, talk, listen, laugh and dance,” says Gralton, battling against a brick wall of conservativism.
Barry Ward and Francis Magee are exceptionally strong as Jimmy and his old friend Mossie, yet it feels as though the expansion of the younger player’s roles is sacrificed for heavy-handed rants about the country’s fractured state of affairs.
As the camera never leaves the small town, we experience the same claustrophobia of the residents, as well as their wonderment at tales of faraway dance halls and longing for weekend fun.
The musical pieces, such as ladies learning a traditional shanty, or the teens spinning to Gaelic jigs, are beautifully-paced. Jimmy’s moonlit dance with former lover Oonagh (Simone Kirby) is spine-tinglingly beautiful, while ensemble scenes – children cycling, townsfolk dancing, and the men taking up arms to protect the venue they love - are thrilling to watch. Jimmy’s frustration towards the church’s traditional mentality is mirrored in the youngster’s defiance of the stone-faced Father Sheridan (the excellent Jim Norton) – and both are punished by brute force.
A biopic set in one of the most difficult eras of Irish history, Jimmy’s Hall was never going to be a fairytale, but it’s the fleeting hedonism of this picture that create a compelling watch and a triumphant swansong for Loach.