Thursday, September 3, 2015

Review: "Jimmy's Hall"

For a good chunk of the 20th century the worst thing you could accuse somebody of in the United States or United Kingdom was being a communist. Even today labels like "socialist" and "fascist" get tossed around much too easily, used more as ad hominem insults than descriptive labels.

James Gralton actually was a communist; he led the precursor to the Communist Party of Ireland during the 1930s and agitated openly for his views. You'd barely know it from "Jimmy's Hall," the new historical drama from director Ken Loach, who has essentially spent his entire career portraying the lives and struggles of the British working class ("The Wind That Shakes the Barley").

For the first 75 minutes or so, it's the story of a prodigal son (Barry Ward) who in 1932 has returned to his homeland from America to care for his ailing ma, and is cajoled by the local youth into reopening the local hall built a decade earlier on the family plot so they can have a place to dance and be carefree. Jimmy's Hall becomes a refuge from the squalor and subjugation that marks the lives of the common folk roundabouts Leitrim.

This development is received with much frowning and disapproval by the local parish priest and the town fathers, which escalates into harsh words, public shaming and eventually violence. It almost plays out like a period costume version of "Footloose," with the cool interloper fighting against the man so the kids can get their jitterbug on without being hassled.

The owlish priest, Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), comments to his young apprentice that this is how the commies get ahold of you: they start at the feet and work their way up to the head.

It's not until the last act that Jimmy finally climbs aboard a hay wagon and gives a fire 'n' brimstone speech about the earls keeping the little people under his thumb, letting the working man enjoy his spot of freedom, etc. And again, he has to be strong-armed by the locals to do it.

The screenplay by Paul Laverty, based on the play by Donal O'Kelly, plays fast and loose with the historical record, as such films are wont to do. In their vision the dilapidated hall is the repository of the agrarian soul, a sacred place where the Irish peasantry can play traditional music, dance a jig, learn songs in their native tongue and maybe have a boxing match or two.

It is, in a word, everything to them.

Ward is stolid and charismatic as Jimmy, in this telling more a ship tossed upon the waves of history than a captain steering a resolute course. Simone Kirby plays a long-lost love, now married off to another man but still pining for her wee rebel boy. They get to share a lovely moonlit dance, but their romance is kept in a corner.

The portrayal of the priest is more nuanced than you might think; he seems to genuinely care about the people and abhor violence. But, as Jimmy says, this church prefers its flock upon their knees.

As is his practice, Loach casts non-actors in a lot of the supporting roles, and it's a great treat to see real human faces in all their misshapen glory rather than Hollywood's usual parade of generic pretty people.

It's a moving story about injustice and intolerance, with the commies as the good guys and the clergy and landed gentry as the heavies. Which is just fine. I just wish "Jimmy's Hall" was a little more upfront about its namesake. If you're going to make a famous communist your hero, don't be shy about calling your hero a communist.

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