Ken Loach doesn’t think very much of me. In a broadside against critics, he described us as “the kind of people who live in darkened rooms” and who don’t “engage in political struggle in the real world.” Well, nuts to you Ken Loach, maybe your invective applies to the toads that squat in The Daily Mail newsroom, or the snooty crypto fascists of the Express, Star etc. but not to me. And what’s more Ken, I really enjoyed your film for (I think) the precise reasons you intended.
Jimmy’s Hall is a straightforward socialist parable set in 1930s rural Ireland. The eponymous Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) has returned from a self-imposed ten year exile in the United States to find his hometown of Effrinagh rudderless, in desperate need of a smidgen of joy. The reason for Jimmy’s original departure was political turmoil kicked up by his opening of a community hall; an institution that allows for a measure of self-governance by the rural working class. This was a place where they could enjoy their own culture, educate themselves and politically organize.
It’s that last one that kicks up a fuss. After a protest against an eviction turns violent, Jimmy realizes he’s attracted the attention of the twin-headed monster of church and state and is forced to flee overseas. Ten years later he’s aiming for the quiet life and the hall stands dusty and derelict. But you can’t keep a good people’s champion down and soon the hall is once more alive with song, dance and politics, re-animating old conflicts and inflaming political tensions.
Loach is refreshingly entirely up front about his political sympathies and Jimmy Gralton’s story allows him to vent some of his own frustrations and experiences as a political artist. But while the heroes of the film happily define themselves as Communists, Jimmy’s Hall settles for a universally socialist outlook rather than directly engaging with the various strands and minutia of left-wing history. There’s a notable scene where a character tries to engage Jimmy in a debate on the famines and gulags of Stalinism, which is brushed off by saying “if you get into that we’ll be here all night.”
In its place is a tightly focused argument for consensual, communal governance arising from the people as opposed to authoritarian dogma imposed from above. The hall is inarguably positive for the community, a “safe place” where the people can express themselves without fear of the cop’s truncheon or the preacher’s damnation. With the people able to think freely, the Church, represented by Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), becomes threatened. Their traditional position is that of shepherd, with complete spiritual and moral authority over their flock. So they’re naturally scared by the community hall, a blank spot on their moral map where spittle-flecked warnings of eternal damnation simply do not apply.
Loach has been criticized for skewing history to promote his own politics, buthe problem with that argument is that Loach’s politics are absolutely correct. If there’s a just spark in your heart, then you can’t escape a warm feeling of pride and happiness at watching these rural labourers (even temporarily) escaping the authoritarian cosh. This is a community stamped upon by cold-hearted land-owners who turn families onto the streets without justification and is infantilized by the Catholic Church: scolded like misbehaved children for daring to educate themselves. It stokes old socialist fires to see people gaining power by forming alliances and engaging in direct action; the idea of the working class banding together clearly terrifying those in power.
There’s a fantastic scene where the land-owners and church are conspiring to bring Jimmy down. They furiously jab their fingers at a newspaper article that reports on how Catholic and Protestant workers have united in industrial action against their employer. This is Loach on divide-and-rule; the bloody, passionate, pointless conflicts between different strands of Christianity exposed as a simple way to keep the working class fighting amongst themselves rather than linking arms against their true economic enemies.
In the central character of Jimmy Gralton it’s easy to read parallels to Loach himself. Both men hold deeply felt convictions, and both men suffer for publicly decrying the injustice they encounter within the world. Jimmy is beaten, humiliated and eventually exiled from his country, whereas Loach has repeatedly endured production troubles and political censorship, a number of his films being withdrawn from transmission for reasons of “controversy.”
The frustrations and despair that his characters experience, leavened by tiny moments of triumph, are thus keenly felt. There’s a stubborn King Canute-like insistence in the movie that the tide must be fought back, that even with titanic military, spiritual and political forces pitted against you (not to mention that from a 21st century perspective we know the Irish socialist struggle is doomed to failure), you must do what you feel is right in your heart. Even if it means personal disaster, injury and disgrace, the film argues that you have an obligation to engage in direct action: the alternative is a moral death that can be felt every bit as keenly as a physical one.
Jimmy’s Hall works beautifully both as political polemic and as straightforward entertainment; after a bit of a slow start we quickly become invested in these well-rounded characters, all of whom benefit from naturalistic, intelligent performances from the cast and a sure-footed technical confidence that finds the cinematic beauty in the Irish countryside. Having said that, if you’re dogmatically opposed to socialism it’s doubtful you’ll enjoy this – but that’s on you, not the film.
It’s been rumoured that Jimmy’s Hall is Ken Loach’s swan song, and if it is, it’s definitely an inspiring note to go out on.