Jimmy’s Hall provides a heartbreaking look at a country gripped in a conflict between the Catholic Church, wealthy landowners, and politicians on the one hand (“the masters and the pastors”, according to one character) and everyone else caught in economic straits whose priorities are for education and freedom. We see the tactics of rumor, innuendo, prejudice, and self-interest used against innocent people. It takes place in 1932 after a period of wartime in Ireland’s gaining independence from England and then another civil war afterwards. The film is based on the true story of Jimmy Gralton, a political activist who built a local hall in which to expound his left-leaning views, and was deported to the U.S. as a result.
In the movie, Jimmy (Ward) has been out of the country in New York for 10 years. He returns after his brother was killed in one of the wars, and his mother is aging and needing help with the family farm. He comes with no plans, but the townsfolk want him to rebuild the community hall that he was once a part of for gatherings and classes. There are enough interested people to rebuild it with volunteer labor. Jimmy accedes, but this goes against the local priest (Norton), who is opposed to any social organization outside of the church. He’s especially obsessed about “communism”, which he accuses Jimmy of endorsing, but really he despises any type of free will and help for the poor, dancing, American music, etc.
Despite the priest, Jimmy’s Hall is rebuilt and becomes a popular gathering place for young and old, with classes, dancing, and music. We see the priest’s true colors when he shames those going to the hall by reading out their names during a church service. He sides with a wealthy estate owner who is banishing a farmer and his family from a small parcel of land, leaving them homeless. Jimmy attempts to negotiate with him, but he won’t budge unless Jimmy tears down the hall, and the situation escalates.
Director Ken Loach (The Wind that Shakes the Barley, The Angel’s Share) is known for movies with social realism, and this one is no exception. Barry Ward, an Irish actor on stage and screen, plays the protagonist in a low-key manner, but with a winning personality, not fiery as we usually think of activists, and his attempts to introduce the Irish people to American jazz is rewarding. Jim Norton as Father Sheridan is better known to Americans (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Water for Elephants, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), and is entirely convincing here as a priest struggling to hold onto dogma when faced with convincing evidence against it.
Jimmy’s Hall doesn’t break new ground, but it is solid and interesting as a piece of history, and Robbie Ryan’s cinematography with a muted color palette, smoke, mists, and shadows takes it a step above.
Traditional religious beliefs tangle with contemporary lifestyles.
Grade: C+ By Donna R. Copeland