Film review: Jimmy's Hall, an activist drama by Ken Loach

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 August, 2015, 10:22pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 September, 2015, 6:10pm

Ken Loach couldn't have gone out on a better note had Jimmy's Hall turned out to be his farewell fiction feature — as it was claimed to be before the social-realist British director announced a change of heart. As scripted by his long-time screenwriter Paul Laverty, this 1930s-set drama chronicling events leading to the deportation of a little-known, real-life Irish political activist is a graceful digest of Loach's signature motifs.

Having tackled subjects such as the British state terrorism in early '80s Northern Ireland (with the 1990 conspiracy thriller Hidden Agenda) and Irish republicanism during the Irish war of independence and Irish civil war (with The Wind That Shakes the Barley, the Palme d'Or winner at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival), Loach now turns to the historical figure of Jimmy Gralton, the only Irishman ever deported without trial from his own country as an illegal alien.

By turns indignant and melancholic, Jimmy's Hall reconstructs the controversies surrounding the rural "dance hall" — a community centre of sorts — that Gralton (Barry Ward) first opened on the eve of the Irish civil war.

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As politicians, landowners and the Catholic Church — mostly taking the shape of an uptight parish priest, Father Sheridan (Jim Norton) — close in to shut it down, the community stage defiant but futile protests.

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Taking place in the months between Gralton's return to Ireland in 1932 after a decade in New York and his subsequent deportation the following year, Loach's film paints a heroic portrait of the progressive-minded communist leader who defies institutional oppression to reopen the Pearse-Connolly Hall — to give his fellow people in County Leitrim a platform for entertainment and cultural exchange.

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The tangible social injustice aside, Jimmy's Hall also takes time to chart Gralton's personal regrets: from his fleetingly peaceful farm life with an elderly mother (Aileen Henry) to a fictionalised affair with a former girlfriend, Oonagh (Simone Kirby), now married to another man.

The lyrical scene in which the pair wistfully dance in a darkened empty hall is one of the most poignant moments in Loach's five-decade career.

Jimmy's Hall opens on August 13, Broadway Cinematheque, Yau Ma Tei