Ken Loach could have directed Jimmy’s Hall, one suspects, in his sleep: which some sceptics may feel is the best way to watch it. Here comes yet another elegiacally filmed Loach polemic – anti-British and anti-Catholic – about the Irish troubles from the man who made, most recently of many, The Wind that Shakes the Barley. The only film left to surprise us from this director would be one in which the British in Ireland, and the Anglo-Irish landlords (circa 1920s/30s), were not fodder for pantomime audience booing or safe-distance partisanship. How we love to feel righteous from the best seat in the house.
The new movie, even so, may be the best of them all: a charmer with a brain. To call Jimmy’s Hall beautifully filmed will probably seem an insult to Loach, like Mrs Worthington’s daughter’s “nice hands”. Yet this story of true-life resistance leader Jimmy Gralton, who twice lived in exile from Ireland but returned the first time with New York dance tunes for his family-founded dance hall, is winning to watch. As Gralton, tousled-handsome newcomer Barry Ward radiates a charisma touched with shyness. It’s also winningly funny when needed. Jim Norton is superb as the stricture-spouting priest, as sweet-looking as a church mouse, as deadly as a cathedral rat. Norton is one moment a mouthpiece for Vatican cant – his church sermon a comical classic (credit to screenwriter Paul Laverty) – and the next moment as mad as a fox in his wheedling casuistry with Gralton or other foes.
The star of the show, however, is not even in it. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan coaxes the screen to marvels. He shot Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, the best series of landscape images never hung in an art gallery. Here he lights faces and bodies, in the window-glow of the dance hall or the changing radiance of the landscape, with a mixture of the dramatic and the delicate that should be impossible.
The dance hall, when not bopping to Manhattan melodies, became a free schoolhouse for kids and adults, provoking more ire from the priests and landlords. Theirs to control souls and living spaces! Theirs to control learning and dwelling! But in the film’s best and quietest passage, Jimmy and longtime girlfriend Oonagh (Simone Kirby) dance together alone, silently, in the after-serenity of a day. It’s a beautiful scene: a peace that passes understanding, a peace that has nothing to do with God, let alone government, least of all with those who manage, or try to, our lives and lands; only with that beatific Utopia we each find when we are ourselves with the right person to share it.