Jimmy’s Hall is a film that comes with quite a bit of baggage. Ken Loach’s producer Rebecca O’Brien made a call back in August that this would be his last film, though Loach himself has since suggested there might be more in him yet. More recently, Loach used a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival to lambast “people who write about films” or not being able to “stand working class characters who speak with some knowledge.” Jimmy’s Hall was entered for the Palme d’Or, but lost out to the Turkish drama Winter Sleep, which focuses on the divide between rich and poor in rural Turkey.
Loach has here once again teamed up with his long-time screenwriter Paul Laverty; their previous collaborations have included 2009’s love-letter to football fanaticism Looking For Eric, with a star turn from none other than Eric Cantona himself, as well as 2006’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, set during the Irish War of Independence, and which won the Palme d’Or in 2006.
These are two filmmakers with a proven track record of producing authentic, moving, character-driven pieces across the genre spectrum; Looking For Eric zinged with an appealing sense of humour and an enthusiasm for life that you couldn’t help but embrace.
In Jimmy’s Hall though, something of that winning charm and aura of truth is missing, despite the fact that the plot is heavily based on a true story. In 1932, having been forced to escape to the US for a decade, Jimmy Gralton returns to County Leitrim, Ireland, and to his family’s farm near which stands the eponymous hall; a building which was the fruit of Jimmy’s vision, providing a safe haven in which young people could meet to learn new skills, to talk, and to dance, and which has lain dormant since his departure. His decision to restore life to the dusty timbers incurs the wrath of the Catholic Church, namely that of the steely Bishop Brennan, played with disarming gentleness by Jim Norton.
Jimmy is persuaded to reopen the hall in one of the least convincing parts of an unconvincing whole: he pulls his cart along a country lane, only to meet with a group of young people dancing their cares away in the road. He carries on, before they all en masse descend on him, imploring him in an unbearably organised fashion, never speaking over one another, to reopen the hall. The encounter is staged in flat, two dimensional space, as are so many of the scenes: Jimmy moves from left to right, they block his way, Jimmy moves on.
The film is diverting enough, but ultimately linear and bland. The dialogue is at best unremarkable, and at worst cringingly unconvincing; it has nothing to do with the class or situation of the characters, awkward writing is awkward writing. A tedious expanse of opening titles slows the start; the endless subtitles of historical context seem symptomatic of a lazy approach to plot exposition that is never fully remedied.
Barry Ward as Jimmy Gralton is at least likeable, and admirable enough to keep the audience’s sympathy. Eileen Henry, a first-time actress who Loach unearthed during the open casting process, is a complete revelation, putting in the film’s most appealing and most natural performance by a country mile as Jimmy’s bustling mother. She brings an oasis of unpredictability and gently subversive cheekiness to her dry didactic surroundings; here, briefly, is a glimmer of Loach and Laverty’s hallmark appeal, but it disappears quickly.