This beautiful, uplifting film celebrates the life and times of the Irish socialist leader, Jimmy Gralton. Set in Depression-era County Leitrim, it celebrates the strength of a local community in hard times and draws parallels with today’s austerity and scapegoating of ‘outsiders’. If this is to be Ken Loach’s last feature film, then he leaves us with a bittersweet swansong. State oppression and intolerance might try to silence its enemies, he is saying, but it cannot extinguish the human spirit.
In 1932 Jimmy (Barry Ward) returns home to rural Ireland after ten years in New York. Just by being there he stirs up the passions of the locals, including his old flame, Oonagh (Simone Kirby). They remember when he built his community dance hall. ‘There’s no work,’ says a teenager, ‘we want somewhere warm to dance. Open up the hall again.’ So he does, knowing that it will re-open old wounds with the Church and authorities.
The hall is used for dancing and singing, but also as a school: the villagers read and discuss the poetry of Yeats; art, boxing and Gaelic are taught. It might not attain Mr Gove’s ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating, but this idealistic co-operative is a joy to behold. This is what life should be about – people smiling, laughing and learning. During the dancing scenes, when a jazz band plays, the hall is bathed in a golden whisky glow.
It is, of course, too good to last. Jimmy’s chief oppressor is Father Sheridan. He is played by Jim Norton, who was so splendidly anti-fun as Bishop Brennan in Father Ted (see ‘Kicking Bishop Brennan up the Arse’ episode). Here he continues where he left off, in boggle-eyed outrage: ‘what is this craze for pleasure?’ he booms from the pulpit, decrying the dancing, with its ‘pelvic thrusts and salacious body-grabbing’. Where the audience sees only good, wholesome fun and education, Sheridan sees evil hatching. Jimmy and his crew are communists and atheists. So his congregation have to choose between them – ‘ is it Christ or is it Gralton?’
Then he reads out a list of names of people who attended Jimmy’s hall. They are named and shamed as if they were at a 1950s communist witch-hunt. Division escalates into warfare and soon Jimmy and his hall are living on borrowed time.
Ken Loach and his longtime scriptwriter, Paul Laverty, have produced a quietly powerful film, in the same vein as the charismatic Jimmy. Politics are discussed, but Gralton is no firebrand (he leaves that to Sheridan), and, although the film is occasionally talky, the script never gets bogged down in preachiness. Laverty has written some wonderful comic lines, such as when Jimmy’s mum invites the priest to tea. ‘Where would you be without a nice cup of tea?’ says Father Sheridan. ‘Absolutely lost, Father,’ says Ma Gralton. The locals admire their new gramophone with its big green sound trumpet. ‘It looks grand’, says one, ‘but I don’t know what we’re going to feed it on’.
There are a couple of anachronisms: would somebody really talk about the ‘Los Angelisation of our culture’ in 1932, when Hollywood had only just come out of the silent era? Would a priest really cite Marx’s Das Kapital – ‘that bloody book’ – as the cause of Jimmy’s socialist uprising?
Father Sheridan’s ‘conversion’ to humanity doesn’t ring true, either. At confession Jimmy accuses the Church of ‘trying to kill our spirit with miserable drabness’ and leaves him to ponder his words, ‘sacrilege is having more hate in your heart than love’. The priest obviously takes this on board, because the next time we see him he’s in his room drinking whisky, listening to ‘the voice of a black woman’ on his own gramophone.