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Jimmy’s Hall (2014) — Don’t Call Me ‘Fascist’… Yeh little Bollocks!

June 4, 2015

Just as a certain kind of middle-class Israeli filmmaker is prone to using Palestinians as set-dressing in stories about their own sense of guilt, a certain kind of middle-class British filmmaker is prone to using Irish history as a means of talking about socialism without having to deal with the fact that the British working-classes have spent the last few decades moving further and further to the right. I suppose the allure is born of envy: When the Irish people won their independence they beat many of the interests and institutions that continue to hold sway over British political life. Much like Scotland voting-in a left-wing party and looking to free itself from the festering right-wing cesspit that is the palace of Westminster, it’s difficult not to be envious of the Irish War of independence and ask ‘Can we come too?’

The thing that keeps drawing me back to the work of Ken Loach is his willingness to accept that left-wing politics is a difficult path. Too many so-called left-wing filmmakers are content to either limit themselves to critiques of right-wing thought or turn the revolution into some sort of aspirational fantasy like Aragorn taking over Gondor at the end of Lord of the Rings. However, this is not to say that Loach is some sort of miserabilist, it’s just that many of his films recognise both the potential of left-wing politics to change lives for the better and the potential of right-wing politics to shut that potential down the second it becomes a nuisance. Loach’s intense ambivalence about the realities of revolution are beautifully expressed in both Land and Freedom and The Wind that Shakes the Barley, both films about revolutions that ended badly only to live on in the minds of younger people. Mooted as Loach’s last ever film, Jimmy’s Hall revisits these themes in a far more mundane and seemingly a-political setting.

 

Jimmys Hall

 

Based on the story of James Gralton, the only Irishman ever to be deported from Ireland, Jimmy’s Hall takes place in the early 1930s after both the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War over the creation of the Irish Free State. The film opens with Jimmy Gralton using the apparent political calm to return home after 10 years in America. Old friends, family and admirers are delighted to see him but they are also concerned that he seems to have changed.

A flashback quickly informs us that Jimmy was once a political firebrand who helped to build a community hall where the locals could dance, talk and take classes to educate themselves. This act of community leadership won Jimmy a loyal following but it also made him a good deal of enemies as his left-wing politics combined with his creation of a space beyond the control of both Church and land-lords meant that he came to be seen as a threat. In fact, what forced Jimmy out of the country was a fear of being either arrested or killed by people loyal to the status quo.

Upon returning home, Jimmy is initially reluctant to re-open the hall until he happens upon a group of children dancing on a country lane because they have nowhere else to go. Begged to reconsider by these firebrand youngsters, Jimmy starts re-building the hall only to rapidly find himself getting sucked into local politics at a time when the wealthy and powerful are looking to consolidate their control of Irish public life.

 

Jimmys Hall

I have a lot of affection for Jimmy’s Hall and I completely share the politics that it seeks to express, but this is not a subtle film… in fact, its political engagement is so simple-minded that it often comes across as downright cartoonish. For example, much like James Cameron in Titanic, Loach uses Irish folk music and dancing as a means of articulating the unfettered joy of community living. Every time the narrative requires us to be mindful of why the hall is important, Loach sends on a bunch of musicians or has a little girl do a spot of Irish dancing. In fact, Loach makes such extensive use of this particular piece of imagery that a version of this film without the musical numbers would probably only last about an hour. Aside from being lazy and manipulative, this over-reliance upon one particular piece of symbolism is a real wasted opportunity as Loach had the chance to make a case for the community ownership of shared spaces at a time when more and more of them are falling into private hands. Equally lazy is the decision to cast Irish character actor Jim Norton in the role of Gralton’s nemesis Father Sheridan. Who is Jim Norton you ask? Well… let’s just say that you wouldn’t want to call him Len.

 

 

Here in the UK we have a tradition known as pantomime in which TV celebrities appear in comedic plays loosely inspired by fairy tales. One of the reasons why pantomime has endured as a theatrical form is that they are so broad and accessible that even children can understand them. One of the oldest tactics used by pantomime producers is to cast celebrities in roles that are almost a perfect match for their broader reputations: Glamour models are cast as love-interests, spunky Doctor Who companions are cast as Peter Pan and ‘evil’ reality TV personalities are cast as villains… you get the idea. While Jim Norton is absolutely sensational in the role of a cruel, monomaniacal and frankly quite stupid member of the Irish clergy, Loach’s decision to cast him in the role of Father Sheridan is pure panto. Much like his over-reliance upon the political symbolism of Irish folk music, Loach’s decision to cast Norton is symptomatic of a desire to rely upon the audience’s existing associations rather than forging new ones. Loach’s tendency to rely upon existing associations to create a simplistic moral vision makes Jimmy’s Hall feel cartoonish and manipulative rather than genuinely insightful. I watched this film hoping for a scene like that in Land and Freedom when the old landowners and workers are forced together to manage the communally-held lands but none was forthcoming… this is a film painted in primary colours with only the broadest of strokes.

 

JH4

 

Setting aside the simple-mindedness of the film’s emotional register, Jimmy’s Hall does manage to raise some interesting questions about the inherently revolutionary character of collective action and community organisation. One of the most depressing things about series like The Hunger Games and Divergent is that they tend to present the emergence of political subjectivities as an inherently violent process whereas in reality you don’t need a bow and arrow, just a willingness to help improve the lives of your community without looking to get paid for your efforts.

In a sense, Father Sheridan’s paranoia is well placed: By providing the community with a place to assemble and educate themselves, Gralton has paved the way for the emergence of a political subjectivity that is free from the influence of clerics and landowners. Allowing a space for people to become aware of the injustice in the system is always the first step on the road to changing it. By forcing most of Gralton’s political beliefs off-stage, Loach has created a film in which the revolutionary potential of collective action within the capitalist system is made abundantly clear: Contrary to what Flashdance might tell us, it isn’t the dancing that’s revolutionary… it’s having unrestricted access to a place where you are allowed to dance at all.

One of the most striking things about the American sitcom Parks and Recreation is that, beneath all the fan-service and the sentimentalism, it is a genuine ode to the importance of community service and the power of the state to make a difference in the lives of normal people. The frustrating thing about Jimmy’s Hall is that while it seems to be groping its way towards a similar set of ideas, Loach gets distracted by his urge to moralise and so the film turns into the story of how evil Bishop Brennan stopped the children from dancing rather than a story of how capitalism turns all forms of community service into revolutionary activity.

 

Jimmy's Hall, film

 

I was disappointed by Jimmy’s Hall but for all its heavy-handedness and the laziness of its imagery, there is still something incredibly rewarding about a film that dares to remind you that getting together with your friends and doing something for your community is always the first step towards changing the world.

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