reviewed by Anne-Marie Montebello
The word hall, in this Franco-British film, is understood in French to mean dance hall. But it is much more than this. It is a meeting place, a place of learning, drawing, music, boxing, literature, and also of course a place to dance and celebrate in a country where popular music, of high quality, and the accompanying dances have played a major role up to this day.
Jimmy introduces the sounds and rhythms he discovered during his ten year exile in the United States, particularly those of Black music. James Galton – Jimmy to his close friends – was actually forced to go into exile when confronted by local landowners and the police. In 1932 he returned to his village in Leitrim county in south-western Ireland, from where the English were evicted less than twenty years earlier. He decided to settle down and work the land, while staying with his elderly mother. We quickly realize that the villagers have not forgotten him and that they expect a lot of him — notably his authorization to repair the premises they had built together and which are now falling to pieces. The situation has not changed. Unemployment, landless farmers on very extensive property, eviction of sharecroppers unable to pay the outrageous rents they are charged, oppression by the Roman Catholic Church personified by a belligerent priest who dictates from the pulpit what is to be done or not done, and who singles out Jimmy, whom he would like to bannish from the village. In those years the Catholic Church had a monopoly on education — a priviledge which was contested by the lessons offered by the Hall free of charge. The same causes producing the same effects, confrontation is near, all the more since in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant workers have come together against their exploiters, inducing the greatest concerns among the employers and the clergy obsessed, not without reason, by the fear of communism.
The film could have been dry. Quite to the contrary, it is full of strength and energy, punctuated by sequences of dancing. The colour is beautiful, the landscapes are gentle, and the characters, without being fashion models, possess an aura that radiates. What we are talking about here are the villagers with their lovely, recognizable accent — not the landowners haunted by fear and hatred. It should be noted the police who are chasing Jimmy and who, without abandonning their brutality, are ill at ease in these fights against people belonging to a world from which they come.
Ken Loach is known not to dissociate the political discourse from artistic expression, be it the light in which it was filmed or the camera employed. The point of view often advanced is that of the teenagers by whom Jimmy is surrounded, and in whom burns the desire to escape the oppression of money and morality. There’s also a romantic scenario, both discreet, and of a great emotional intensity. As in Irish ballads, when returning from exile, Jimmy has found his sweetheart already married and the mother of two children.
The screenwriter says he wanted to move beyong the idealised image of the activist. And the character portrayed by actor Barry Ward is anything but a caricature. Sensitive and fun-loving, he hesitates when his incredible skill as a speaker is solicited. Political discussion is present on different levels. With the villagers, always threatened with repression and who wonder about the action they should take. With the prominent citizens, for the opposite reasons. And potentially with the clergy, where the reflections of a young priest disturb the old vicar, who nevertheless remains on the side of the landowners. Debates take place between the two sides, but they could be better described as denunciations rather than as debates. Their aim is to convince their own partisans, more than their adversaries. The situation is undisputably that of class struggle.
Jimmy’s Hall is not the first film Ken Loach dedicated to Ireland and its political and social fights. The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) was about the 1919-1921 war of independance, and the civil war of 1922-1923 which followed, and which earned him the Palme d’Or in Cannes. The same scriptwriter Paul Laverty also wrote this latest film. Many studies have been devoted to the activist Jimmy Galton, but nothing had yet been written which would do him justice and venerate his name. This has now been accomplished. Ken Loach claims he likes documentaries. He produced here a beautiful cinematic achievement which both accounts for history, and gives it the tribute of fine fiction artistry.