The Socialist 11 June 2014 |
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Ken Loach's Jimmy's Hall
Dramatic, inspiring and full of life, 'Jimmy's Hall', based on the true story of left-wing worker-activist Jimmy Gralton, is in many ways director Ken Loach's sequel to his outstanding 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley'.
This depicted brothers torn apart during tumultuous events in Ireland from 1918 to 1922 - the struggle for Irish independence, civil war and partition. Jimmy's Hall is set in the aftermath, when victorious reactionary forces changed the country's flag but maintained capitalist property relations and class exploitation.
Jimmy (played brilliantly by Barry Ward) leaves behind Depression-era America to return to his native County Leitrim to help his mother run the family farm. Soon he is urged by young people to reopen the 'Pearse-Connolly' dance hall built by him and other activists on Gralton family land and named after two executed 1916 Easter Rising leaders (Pearse, a radical nationalist, and Connolly, the Marxist thinker and workers' leader).
Jimmy is reluctant to do so because ten years previously it led to conflict with the local Catholic Church hierarchy, big landowners and reactionary forces of the new Irish Free State - told in dramatic flashbacks - and ended with his expulsion from Ireland at gunpoint. But Jimmy relents after visiting the derelict Hall, inspired by a dusty copy of James Connolly's classic Labour in Irish History and memories of the Hall in its prime.
The reopened Hall is quickly a success; a free venue for music and dancing (Irish and Jazz), boxing, singing lessons, poetry and art classes. It also hosts discussions about workers' rights (Jimmy Gralton was an activist in the Revolutionary Workers' Group, a forerunner of the Communist Party of Ireland).
Running through the film is Jimmy's rekindled passion with another organiser, Oonagh, the girlfriend he was forced to leave behind ten years previously and who is now married with children.The Hall's re-opening soon earns the ire of Jimmy's old adversaries in the local establishment, led by Father Sheridan.
They regard the Hall as a dangerous subversive challenge to authority. From the pulpit, Father Sheridan lambasts Jimmy's "atheistic" teachings and names and shames those who attend the Hall. Shop owners are threatened with a boycott if their children keep attending Gralton's classes.
Jim Norton, who plays Father Sheridan, presents a complex character; he compares Jimmy's convictions to the early Christians but is determined to smother the potential attraction of Marxist ideas to the poor and hungry.
The Hall's success leads to Jimmy being asked to campaign on behalf of a tenant farmer evicted by a big landlord. This provokes a robust round-table debate amongst Hall activists: are the recovering forces of the Left and radical nationalism strong enough to take on the establishment?
In the end, the landlord's thugs are physically faced down and the evicted family returned to their home. Jimmy makes a rousing speech, paraphrasing James Connolly and with allusions to today's inequalities.
Inevitably the forces of reaction take revenge against the Hall and Jimmy. They fear the example of Catholic and Protestant workers' unity in the Northern statelet (the 1932 Outdoor Relief Strike in Belfast) will spread South. Éamon de Valera's government issues a deportation order against the "alien" Jimmy Gralton. Jimmy is forced to go on the run, while unions mounted a nationwide campaign in his defence.
In the end, the forces of reaction do prove too strong for Jimmy and his comrades. There are some minor flaws in the film (some dialogue is a bit wooden and too modern - the Hall as a "safe space"?) but overall Jimmy's Hall is another Loach triumph; humane, moving and bursting with optimism, showing the irrepressible capacity of working people to recover even from terrible defeat and to strive for self-emancipation.