Director Ken Loach is a master of capturing gestures that ripple with implication and subtext, casually, authentically embodying his tender, despairing warring-class themes. Jimmy’s Hall has several such moments, and there’s one, occurring late in the narrative, that arises as the film’s emotional centerpiece. But, first, a bit of context: The setting is the southern Irish county of Leitrim in the early 1930s, about a decade after the War of Independence, which set into motion a series of cultural reverberations that will eventually metastasize into the Troubles years later. Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) has returned home after a long stay in New York City through the 1920s, which he embarked on so as to evade a mounting clash between the exploited, poverty-stricken proletariat and the local Catholic church. Jimmy was essentially run out of the country for opening the Pearse-Connolly Hall on his land (though the ownership of that land, like seemingly most in Ireland, is the subject of intense, byzantine dispute). The hall was exactly what it sounded like: a community center for folks to dance, learn and teach art, history, English, and so forth, but the church regarded it as a subversive act linked to communism, designed to empower the common man.
The church’s hypocrisy, which pronounces man’s (and only man’s) equality before God as a method of policing the divide between the privileged and the hordes working their land for next to nothing, is obviously the subject of Loach’s scorn, and it’s a timeless global issue that hasn’t aged one iota. There’s little difference between the diehard Catholics in Jimmy’s Hall, for instance, and American politicians who speak of small government and large freedom while seeking to outlaw anything that theoretically goes against the grain of contradictory and ever-shifting religious dogma. The Catholics, represented in the film by Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), resent people like Jimmy, who champion the folks in front of them rather than the mythological man in the sky who conveniently appears to favor only the status quo. (The fact that Jesus himself was executed for challenging religious institutions, for reasons that parallel Jimmy’s own revolutionary motivations, seems to only bother one religious figure in this film.) Sheridan preaches of people needing to be true to themselves, while colluding with the authorities to ensure that they’re anything but, and his conflict with Jimmy kicks up again when the latter returns and reopens his hall to identical persecution and political repression. Throughout the film, Loach maintains a deceptively steady and tranquil tone, allowing the targets of his ire to seemingly indict themselves, nurturing within his audience a sense of anticipation: Some sort of dramatic release is obviously being prepared for by this hushed understatement.
Then, that moment arrives, serving as an oasis from the mood of pervading disappointment and literal as well as figurative hunger. Jimmy is in his hall, and he knows that his project, an implicative quest for class equality as well as a symbol of resistance to the conservative austerity that seeks to keep the lower class pickled in hopelessness, will fail. Knowing this, Jimmy’s looks to Oonagh (Simone Kirby), the woman he left once upon a time so as to forge something new in America. She tries on a dress that Jimmy recently bought her, and they dance together in silence, while a fiddle provides the faintest hint of an accompanying score, which might represent the music they conjure within their minds to suit such an unexpected moment of communion. Loach’s point isn’t subtle: Moments like this embody a real religion—the religion of compassion, empathy, and common sense born by shared experience, not to mention the longing, in this case, of two ex-lovers trapped in desire that can’t be sated. This scene is classic Loach, merging his politics with his dramatic instincts to bring the film briefly to life.
In fact, every scene that’s set in the titular building is a model of spatial precision, socio-political detail (notice how people dance based on their level of education and experience), and the kind of unfussy, matter-of-fact command of atmosphere that one typically associates with the work of a legendary elder-statesman filmmaker who’s honed his or her craft over an amazing breadth of decades. But Jimmy’s Hall doesn’t consistently breathe. Much of the film is the sort of earnest Irish miserablist procedural in which dirty faces and hands are emphasized at the expense of the people who possess them, reducing most of the characters to thematic talking points. Loach’s staging is so calm and sober that it turns his story into an expertly photographed yet weirdly remote rebellion tale. Emotional messiness, anger—a sense of something being palpably at stake—are fatally missing. This resigned stateliness has the insidious effect of implying that Jimmy’s fate, and by extension the fate of any future subversive, is preordained.