Ken Loach in his heyday was tough and uncompromising, so it’s odd that he has inspired so many films with runny centres (Brassed Off, The Full Monty, Billy Elliot). His best work – Kes, Family Life, Raining Stones, My Name Is Joe – has a knack for expressing tenderness and hope without pretending that those qualities alone will make everything peachy. But Jimmy’s Hall proves that Loach is more than capable of making his own runny-centred movies. It is less a portrait of the Irish communist leader Jimmy Gralton than a big, dopey kiss blown at him. Unconditional love is a joyous thing when extended from a parent to a child. Between a film-maker and his subject, it is more problematic.
Jimmy’s Hall returns Loach and his long-time screenwriter Paul Laverty to early-20th-century Ireland, the site of a previous success of theirs. The new film could be called The Wind That Shakes the Barley II: This Time It’s Heart-Warming. The battle here is not between the emergent IRA and the British but between Gralton and the Church, which is vehemently opposed to him establishing the Pearse-Connolly Hall as a social and educational centre for his community.
As the film begins, Gralton (Barry Ward) is returning home to County Leitrim from New York, where he fled to a decade earlier to avoid arrest. The hall’s dilapidated interior is now good for nothing except acting as a trigger for damp-eyed flashbacks to a lovelier time.
But what’s this? The local youngsters, firebrands to a girl and boy, have heard tell of the hall and its liberating philosophy. They’re bored of knitting flat caps and tank tops from twigs, or whatever it is they do to pass the hours. They want to dance, recite poetry and box, though presumably not at the same time. They implore Jimmy to open the hall again. The twinkle in his eye will be familiar from every film in which someone has ever decided to put the show on right here or get the band back together to save the llama sanctuary from foreclosure.
Jimmy’s chief antagonist is the parish priest Father Sheridan, played by Jim Norton with beady-eyed relish and wit. It is only a minor hindrance that Norton played Bishop Brennan in the sitcom Father Ted. Viewers for whom the episode “Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse” remains a source of ongoing joy may find it hard not to call for the same to be dished out to Father Sheridan. Some distraction comes from the old-school movie-star panache of Barry Ward, who looks like Aidan Gillen might if he wanted to caress you in your sleep, rather than kill you.
Laverty admits that much of the film is speculation – Jimmy’s sweetheart is one of several characters to have sprung from the screenwriter’s mind. What’s difficult to stomach is the level of emotional blackmail. Though there is grudging respect towards Jimmy late in the day from the clergy, generally those who disagree with him are unfeeling brutes. Even the violent raids on the hall are staged with a curious sentimentality. The police are always bursting in during Gaelic singing lessons or dancing classes to slap women to the ground. They never seem to call when the boxing is in full swing.
If his opponents are sadists, Jimmy is nothing short of saintly. Hungry for character flaws, you may alight upon the scene in which his mother complains that she can’t see well enough to sew his shirt. Jimmy walks over and pokes the cotton through the eye of the needle, then hands it back to her. A true hero would have said: “I’m a grown man, Ma. I can sew my own clothes, so I can.” But that’s the closest the film gets to admitting that Jimmy is as fallible as the rest of us. Those looking for a bit more balance and a good deal less soppiness are unlikely to be placated by the revelation: “Communist leader in ‘never helped mum with housework’ shock!”