Jimmy’s Hall (2014) is Ken Loach’s 50th odd and apparently last feature film. Which sucks because the man still definitely has a lot to say and can say it better than basically anyone else.
This is a film that made by so many other people would just be tired, period film blandness. But one of Loach’s great gifts as an artist (in my admittedly limited experience) is his ability to inject a lot of life into his stories. There were times watching this when I felt like applauding at the end of a scene because it was so rousing. The film is based on the true story of Jimmy Gralton an Irish communist in the 1930’s. Returning from time exiled abroad he once again starts up the titular hall, inspired by the effect that being away from a place can have on a person. Fashioned on socialist principles, the hall aims to provide education and amusement for all who wish to come. Importantly and provocatively, especially in relation to education, far from the reach and influence of the all powerful church. The film tells the uplifting story of what happened inside the walls and the rather more sober reaction that it receives from the more conservative nearby neighbours, who come in both fascist and Christian guises.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly why Loach can make this material work where others would fail. Which is not to say that what he is working with his bad. The slice of history, probably unknown to many outside of Ireland, is fascinating and the script by Paul Laverty is pretty insightful. Actually the script is a very smart piece of work as it connects day to day goings on in the film, a potential affair for example, with the societal structures that bring them about and influence how they play out. But there are many similar films about similar historical events and it is rare that they are this good or this engaging. Loach is also not really that much of a stylist. Jimmy’s Hall, like all of Loach’s work I have seen, looks good but nothing more noteworthy than that. It could be that Loach is unabashed to be political. He’s famously left wing, once withdrawing a film from MIFF because the festival was sponsored by the Israeli embassy and were refusing to cancel the sponsorship. So here he shows that the commies are the good guys, at least in this environment, and it is hard not to get swept up in cheering for them. This is especially true when they go against idiotic fascists and power hungry members of the clergy. On this front, and others, it would appear that Loach has the power to choose only those projects that he is going to be distinctly passionate about and Irish revolutionaries are right up the veteran director’s alley. Barry Ward’s turn as Jimmy does not hurt either, as he convinces you that he’s a dude that you would follow and buy into his personal ideology.
It is shocking that a film about Ireland in the 1930’s was made to feel relevant to 2014 Australia, but that is just one of Loach’s achievements with Jimmy’s Hall. Even if like me you have no idea who Jimmy Gralton was, you will still want to see this film and be inspired by the example that he set.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny