A fire burns in Jimmy Gralton’s head as it does with the narrator of Yeat’s poem ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’, which locals debate at the Pearse-Connolly Hall named after leaders from the Easter Rising.
This is the hall that gives the film its title – ‘Jimmy’s Hall’ – which Gralton built after Ireland had established its independence from British rule. It’s multi-functional, used for educating and entertaining villagers; very commendable you would think, but not so in the eyes of the priests, who saw the going’s on as a challenge to the Church’s authority.
The opening sequence is a montage of evocative archive footage taken from Twenties New York, where Gralton had spent the decade in exile; witnessing Wall Street’s rise and fall first hand.
The next has Gralton returning to Ireland after the death of his brother, alongside flashbacks from his life before departing. When he reopens the hall, egged on by a new disaffected youth – history repeating itself – it rekindles a lost hope and old hatreds in equal measure; feeding two quasi-legends, one the re-emergence of a working class hero and the other an “antichrist” corrupting the fold.
And these are the battle-lines that bring Gralton into serious conflict with the orthodox hardliner, Father Sheridan, all fire and brimstone, seemingly delivering a permanent sermon on a loop and natural successor to another Father, Joyce’s Arnall from ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’.
They are diagonally opposed. There is no room for compromise here – it’s all or nothing – but they secretly acknowledge each other, at least from a distance, for having the courage of their own convictions.
Sheridan labels Gralton a Stalinist but employs Soviet style ‘hammer and sickle’ tactics for suppressing his rival. Intolerance rules with a new order that is more oppressive than the Brits and there can be only be one winner.
This is a film of how Gralton became the only Irishman to be deported without a trial.
It’s also a film that pays homage to a courageous apolitical attempt to prioritise the community over the individual and co-operation over competition.
But Gralton’s inner fire is not only a passion for tackling an injustice inflicted in the name of the scriptures. Like Yeat’s narrator, he has love in his heart, a love for Oonagh, a mutual love from years earlier but one he is destined to experience from a distance, different continents and in isolation ’till time and times are done’.
And he has a passion for the new music of the Jazz Age, the ‘rhythms from darkest Africa’ as Sheridan puts it. Some of the film’s most relaxed scenes have Gralton teaching Oonagh and others the liberating dances that come with it. Some of its most disturbing depict the barbaric reprisals, ugly symptoms of a divided society still reeling from civil war where the bloody wounds remain wide open.
Barry Ward and Jim Norton lend a charisma to Gralton and Sheridan respectively that is compelling, and whenever Eileen Henry is on the screen as Gralton’s mother, she takes us to that special place – a totally unaffected natural reality – that only newcomers seem to find; something that Loach treasures, perhaps more than anything.
Paul Laverty’s script is often understated notwithstanding dealing with fiery subject matter and all the more affecting for it.
And we find Loach in both reflective and angry mood and he provokes similar emotions in us as we leave the cinema. It’s a fitting companion to his Palme d’Or winner, ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’.
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