James Gralton may not be a name familiar to many outside of Ireland; indeed, his name may not be familiar to those within Ireland, either. But Gralton’s story is an important one: in 1933 he became the first (and only) Irishman ever deported from Ireland.
Gralton was deported because he was a “communist leader” perceived to be a threat by local religious leaders. Years before, he had immigrated to the US, but returned to his homeland to fight in the Irish War of Independence and later to take care of his ailing mother. The state used the fact that he held a US passport as an excuse to deport him without a trial.
One of the most memorable scenes in Ken Loach’s new film Jimmy’s Hall features involves the police who have come to James away, and the doddering mother who depends on his support in the final years of her life.
“What’s going on here?” she asks the policemen who have come for her son, local men who have known her since they were children and cannot supply a valid answer to her question. The mother is played by non-actress Aileen Henry, who supplies the perfect deadpan delivery to her character’s lines.
But instead of what could have been a melodramatic sequence straight out of a silent movie, Loach uses the old woman in a way worthy of Hitchcock: she offers the men tea as a means of distracting them while her son escapes, and then slyly locks them inside her home amidst the ensuing confusion.
Despite the serious subject matter, Jimmy’s Hall is one of the lightest and breeziest features in the long and distinguished career of director Loach. Warm and good-natured from beginning to end, the film carefully manages to avoid falling into sentimentality or saccharine melodrama; for anyone not familiar with the director’s work, this one might be the most watchable.
The titular Hall is a community center that Jimmy Gralton (played by Barry Ward) used to run before he left for the states; in 1932, when he returns to Ireland to take care of his mother, it has fallen into disrepair. But the local teenagers – who lack education not provided by the church, or simply something to do during the depression – beg him to re-open it.
Soon – along with holding classes for the kids on subjects as diverse as poetry and boxing – Gralton is playing jazz records on a gramophone and teaching the teenagers to dance like “the negroes” that he knew in New York City.
Of course, the local Father (Jim Norton) will have none of that, and in scenes that strikingly recall the Kevin Bacon classic Footloose he’s denouncing Jimmy’s music and dance moves as a sinful alternative to traditional Irish dancing.
It’s an unusual choice to focus on the music and dance as much as Loach and screenwriter (and longtime collaborator) Paul Laverty do here, but it ultimately works on an allegorical level, as Jimmy’s battle with the Father is representative of the bigger picture. Gralton, of course, was also a community leader who espoused communist ideals, and fought to protect the rights of laborers against the landowners who tried to evict them during the depression.
Since debuting with Poor Cow and Kes in the late 1960s, director Ken Loach has firmly established himself as one of the UK’s most important independent filmmakers. His films span a wide variety of genres and decades and countries (even continents), but Loach always brings a warmth and vitality to material that might otherwise be dismissed as art house or social interest fare (his last film, The Angel’s Share, is a particularly good example of this).
Jimmy’s Hall is a low-key piece that won’t likely be mentioned alongside the director’s best work – my favorites include My Name is Joe, which featured an unforgettable Peter Mullen performance, and the unusual political thriller Hidden Agenda – but the overall quality of Loach’s films has remained remarkably consistent over the years, and this is a fine and worthy addition to his oeuvre.
Note: some dialogue may be unintelligible to those unused to the Irish dialect, though the brogue rarely gets as thick as in the director’s previous The Wind That Shakes the Barley. In an interesting turn of events, the film earned a PG-13 in the US despite dozens of instances in which “fuck” is used in dialogue, most likely because of the pronunciation as “feck”.