Somewhat of a companion piece to 2006’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Ken Loach returns to Ireland to tell the true story of radical and free thinker Jimmy Gralton - the only man ever to be deported from Ireland after he fell afoul of church and Free State in early 1930s Leitrim.
Loach and scriptwriter Paul Laverty zone in on Jimmy’s philosophical war with a firebrand local priest, Father Sheridan, to make wider points about the cultural and political battles at the heart of formation of the new state.
Lean and handsome Dublin actor Barry Ward plays Gralton, the charismatic local man who arrives back to his mother’s homestead after ten years in New York having witnessed the Wall Street Crash and the ensuing Depression. He slowly reacquaints himself with former fellow travellers - some just out of prison for their anti-Treaty stance and some still treated as exiles in their own community.
When local youngsters, whom he first encounters dancing at a crossroads in a colourful blaze of Hinde-like rustic greens, reds and browns, beg him to reopen the local Pearse-Connolly Hall, Gralton is initially resistant but also battle-weary and hopeful about a fresh start under Dev’s new government. He sees education, the arts, and, most of all, freedom of expression as the future for the progressive but impoverished younger generation of the new Ireland.
Things get very footloose down in the newly reopened hall as these early dancehall sweethearts listen to jazz, study poetry, and shim sham through the repressive fug of 1930s rural Ireland. A re-energised Gralton even finds himself drawn once again to former love Oonagh, who is played with a quiet intensity by Simone Kirby of Peaky Blinders.
Portraits of Pearse and Connolly hang above the stage in the humble corrugated haven of thought and talk and over in the parochial house, Father Sheridan has his own iconography - a painting of a brave Fianna, a soldier of the aspirant Republic, genuflecting in front of a bishop draped in vulgar finery.
In a delicious piece of casting, Father Sheridan is played by Jim Norton, a great actor who will forever be Bishop Len Brennan from Father Ted. He fulminates against Gralton's communism leanings, the jazz music, the political debates, and the “Los Angelisation of Irish culture”. He rails against "this one book - Das Capital (sic)", without ever considering the manacles forged by his very own "one book."
Jimmy’s Hall is a handsome movie of rich and powerful storytelling full of a compelling characters at the mercy of the great changes of the time - there is Bolshevik agitation on the streets of Belfast, Pathe newsreel screened in the local cinema shows Dev craned in supplication to Papal emissaries at the 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, while in Leitrim a new land war has erupted with the break-up of the big estates.
Loach and Laverty rarely over empathise the message here - the devastating effects of major events on small communities, the failure of Capitalism, and the way the Irish replaced the Brits with their own oppressive regime of crosiers and isolationism.
This is a lovely and lyrical folk history that parts the fog of officialdom and censorship to tell a stirring true story. It may be set in a remote and repressed rural Ireland, but Jimmy's Hall has the universal ring of truth about it.