What is so dangerous about a tin hall in a country bog? This is the question touched upon in Ken Loach’s latest feature, Jimmy’s Hall, naturally steeped in further philosophising and musings on the way in which fear and intolerance breed blind and wilful hostility. In 1930s County Leitrim, Ireland, political activist and people’s champion Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) endeavours to revive old dreams. Ten years prior, before he had fled Ireland for the new sights and sounds of New York at the height of conservative heat on his tail, he had been at the helm of a dance hall in the little Leitrim village. It became a place for learning, creating and expression as well as a haven for nights of musically-fuelled reckless abandon.
However, off the back of the bitter pro and anti-British Treaty schism and violence that had marred their history came another societal fissure – less well known but every bit as relevant in its message and consequence. The priests of Leitrim and the force of their conservative army brought the dance hall volunteers’ cause to a halt, and the hall stood still. Back again, the prodigal son returned, Jimmy finds himself unable to resist firing up again what had been started and continuing on the fight. The traditionalists live in fear of the radical trends they cannot control and so attempt to crush it, while the righteous faction push back for what it’s worth, and a lone sympathetic voice on the side of the conservatives (here a fledgling priest played by Andrew Scott) questions their actions.
Jimmy’s Hall sees a thoughtful continuation in Loach’s cinematic study of social struggle. A number of familiar but interesting parallels are set up – new versus old, rich versus poor, tolerance versus hate and, even as far as an extreme ‘Christ or Gralton’ ultimatum. For a group that spend so much time criticising the Americans, the anti-dancehall movement seem to have a lot in common, particularly a certain irrational vehemence towards socialism. Alongside this, the story subplots the cosmic life injustices which Jimmy has no control over, from the romantic relationship he could never quite secure to the repeatedly severed maternal one.
But there are also little joys and victories that can be found amidst this reign of terror. The hall, purely in its existence, develops its own physical presence, becoming a defiant symbol of resistance and all the conviction they stand for. Ward has both the subtle charm and humble demeanour to bring to life Gralton’s everyman persona as we imagine it would have been – initially evincing a cautious hesitancy, but appraisingly accepting of his position. In the setting of such a close-knit community (in terms of geography rather than affinity), there is a medley of reactions displayed by the villagers towards Jimmy, whether through reverence or revulsion, and the nature of his reputation oscillates depending on who’s making the judgement. Like a roll call of players on a stage, they all add their own observations and advocacy to the increasingly fractured discourse.
Although it is not without its striking eruptions, the film remains as low key as the village in which the events take place. Absent of a hum of electric drama in the underbelly of each rolling scene, there is little that compels the viewer to any great state of upending shock. However, it remains an affecting piece of cinema, which is equally as valuable in the way it moves you to varying levels of outrage and heavy-heartedness, and it maintains an intimate feel for how 1930s Ireland and its small communities would have been without bias or benightedness. With its strong sense of contemporary relevance, Jimmy’s Hall concludes as an absorbing watch. The universal language we recognise in injustice and the frustration that accompanies it means the events such as those seen in the curious life of Jimmy Gralton’s can still resonate loudly even when taking place in a quiet corner of the earth.
Ken Loach Q&A Session
Ken Loach, it appears, is having a pretty good month. Jimmy’s Hall was favourably received at Cannes in May and now, in this the month of his birthday (although he jokes he stopped having birthdays a long time ago), he is engaged in a tour of sorts, spreading the story of Jimmy Gralton to the cinema-going masses.
At this particular stop we find him at East Finchley’s Phoenix Cinema, a single screen independent film house dedicated to not only screening high grade cinema but also special event tie-ins to run alongside them. Loach introduced the film by explaining its origins in that the idea was brought to him by long-term collaborator, the screenwriter Paul Laverty, and with a little insight into Gralton’s struggle – from the backlash that befell him and his band of friends and followers in opening a little dance hall in Ireland, to hinting at a devastating setback that irrevocably alters Jimmy’s role in their movement.
By the end of the screening, the audience is united in expressing their sympathetic leanings towards the film’s hero, with one person even going as far as to compare Gralton’s plight, a little bizarrely, to her experience of the Barnet local elections. Regardless, the sentiment was there. Little is known about what happened to Gralton later on in his life – due to the mysterious disappearance of all official records – perhaps only making it all the more poignant that these events were not abandoned to forgotten traces of history, and fuelling team Loach-Laverty’s passion to immortalise them all the more.
Discussion then roamed into more general territory concerning, among other things, the lack of programming for smaller, independent films versus their blockbuster counterparts. In this context, it is impossible to ignore the valuable efforts of cinemas like Phoenix in finding a space where such stories can be told should you wish to seek them out – and you definitely should.
Find out more about the Phoenix Cinema.