When an Irish refugee returns to his homeland during The Great Depression, he tries to reopen the old public hall he abandoned a decade ago – but when local authorities oppose him, can he keep it open or be forced to shut its doors forever?
Between 1919 and 1921, the Irish battled the English to drive them out of Ireland. After two years of fighting, Ireland finally agreed to a treaty – unfortunately, there remained a rather substantial contingent of Irish who opposed this treaty. As a result, a civil war broke out in Ireland pitting the pro-treaty Irish against their anti-treaty countrymen. Since the pro-treaty group was backed by England, they eventually won – but even with the internecine war over, hard feelings remained long thereafter. Complicating matters was the onset of The Great Depression, which had an impact worldwide and, in parts of Europe, led to a “Red Scare” – people fearing the onslaught of Communism.
In a sense, James Gralton (Barry Ward) was a victim of all of this. During the war between England and Ireland, Gralton opened a popular town hall where people from his county gathered regularly. Forced out because of his political activism, Gralton migrated to America in 1922, settling in New York City. A decade later, Gralton returned home, where he was warmly welcomed by friends, neighbors and former patrons of his famous hall. Deciding to move in with his elderly mother, it is not long after his repatriation that Gralton is besieged by the townspeople to re-open the hall. After initially refusing, Gralton soon changes his mind when he sees how desperate and hopeless everyone has been left due to the poor economy.
But even after the hall is reopened, all is not well. Even though people are flocking to the facilities to enjoy educational opportunities, sporting activities and especially nightly dancing, the town leaders are unhappy about its reemergence. Leading the opposition is the parish priest, who fears that Holy Mother Church will lose its vice-like grip on the poor and under-educated villagers. Not helping matters is the feeling that the hall’s mere existence alone is subversive in that Gralton will use it as a means to pollute the citizens with his Socialist beliefs. But when the town’s council pressures Gralton to close the hall, will he succumb or can he change the councilmembers’ mind?
What’s interesting about “Jimmy’s Hall” is that it provides something of a history lesson that has largely been buried in time. Long forgotten – at least by non-Europeans – is not only the battle between England and Ireland following World War I, but also, the internal war between the Irish once the dispute with England was more or less settled (although history tells us that it never really was, at least not if you remember the terrorism that occurred in Northern Ireland decades ago). This movie puts much of what happened subsequently in perspective.
As a movie, however, it does have some problems. Of particular note is that much of it feels like a play – not so much because it’s static (although with the title “Jimmy’s Hall”, it’s quite possible that may have been the case in an earlier draft). The reason it feels like a play is due to its very talky nature – the screenplay relies a little too much on dialog and long speeches at times. This may be because the filmmakers had a particular perspective – or an ax to grind, depending on your viewpoint. Loach is notorious for his Socialist agenda, which is abundantly obvious given the imbalanced way the two sides are portrayed.
If you can get past the occasional chattiness, then “Jimmy’s Hall” might prove worthwhile entertainment. There is something of a forced romantic interest that is crowbarred into the story when Gralton attempts to rekindle a relationship with an ex-girlfriend who married and started a family during Gralton’s absence. Essentially, this is a very political film and if the politics offends your sensibilities, then perhaps it’s better to avoid the motion picture altogether. However, if you can look at it from a historical perspective (e.g., consider the Communist paranoia of McCarthy-era America back in the 1950’s), then you might be hard pressed to do better than “Jimmy’s Hall”.