Starring: Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Andrew Scott
In Ireland in 1932, Jimmy Gralton (Ward) returns to his home country to look after his mother after spending ten years in America to a time of great famine and political tension after Ireland has gained independence. After being persuaded by the locals, Jimmy re-opens the local community hall where the poverty stricken locals come to socialise and are able to express themselves. However, not before the long the catholic church and local priest Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), attempt to repress this self expression, comparing it to communism. So begins a small group of peasants standing up for their basic right of self expression against the power and oppression of the Catholic Church.
Apparently this is the last cinematic work of the great Ken Loach, a very important director in the history of British cinema in my view, with his raw and honest approach to telling stories that he passionately wants to tell producing some unique, important and unforgettable films during his career. Well, if Jimmy’s Hall is to actually be his swansong then it is unfortunately not quite him ending on a truly high note. Well, by his high standards anyway. Jimmy’s Hall is still a film told with raw passion, examining a true story and featuring political and social ideals that Loach believes in personally, but yet feels slightly underwhelming overall as a narrative experience.
Loach undoubtedly likes to tell stories about real characters (even if they happen to be fictional in the narrative, they still represent very realistic and relatable characteristics and situations) and there is no doubt in my mind that Jimmy’s Hall contains that passion and integrity of every Ken Loach film. Loach’s undeniable passion and strong political views are still very much visible throughout his and regular screenwriter Paul Laverty’s storytelling in Jimmy’s Hall, but yet as a narrative whole it is still lacking a certain something to make it up there with his best works. Just like in the superior The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Jimmy’s Hall deals with a very turbulent time in the 20th century history of Ireland that I must confess to only knowing the basics about, and the film is certainly a very informative history lesson (albeit told perhaps from a slightly biased perspective) but yet this time there is a real softness and, I am afraid to say, a slight lack of narrative discipline.
Loach picks his side right from the start and we are essentially told who is good and bad in the story, and though that may in fact be an accurate depiction of a story that deserves to be told, everything feels a little flat and the narrative never truly grips. The main protagonist of Jimmy Gralton is played charismatically by theatre actor Barry Ward, but the depiction of him being almost perfect does in my view detract from the involvement of the story. Jimmy is handsome, loved by everyone, always says the right thing and basically portrayed as unnaturally perfect, which does feel like a slight narrative contrivance.
Likewise the supporting characters all feel a little bland, it is obviously the intention for naturalistic acting and dialogue, but it often makes many scenes in the lean running time of 109 minutes feel quite dull. It is very clear who is oppressed and who is doing the oppressing, but characters on either side do tend to verge on stereotypical caricatures. Though the two priests played by Jim Norton (Bishop Brennan from Father Ted) and Andrew Scott are played very well and despite Loach’s unashamedly left wing politics present throughout, they are actually characters of genuine depth and conflict, it is just a shame they are the only ones. The characters are predominantly just not memorable or engaging, making it hard to truly route for those that we are supposed to.
The narrative itself feels slightly episodic, with no real flow to it, and a subplot involving Jimmy and a former love (Simone Kirby) who is now married to someone else goes nowhere and feels like filler. There is often an underlying sense of humour to many scenes, which does make Jimmy’s Hall that bit more watchable for it, but also contributes to it always being never less than watchable, but never truly gripping or memorable and quite frankly told with a slight lack of discipline.
The film is also very well shot, even if it does feel more like a TV film, but this also adds to the overall sense of gentle storytelling and not the hard hitting political and cultural examinations of Loach’s best works.
Jimmy’s Hall is a film about an intriguing piece of history and obviously told with integrity and genuine passion, yet lacks a certain spark and storytelling discipline to truly do its source material and real life protagonist true justice.