“Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow,” declared Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
In the case of Jimmy Gralton, she took bites and spat him out a couple of times. It's tempting to say some people never learn, but, as played by Irish actor Barry Ward, Jimmy is such an idealistic and—let's face it—good-lookin' and charming Celtic guy that you forgive his ingenuousness.
In director Ken Loach's latest (24th!) feature film, Gralton is star/lead, playing a historical figure deported from his homeland without trial in 1932, mainly for setting up the “Pearse-Connolly Hall”—a community center for dance, talk and music: the Irish specialty. Using emigration and return as metaphor for Ireland, it's the story of a land with no jobs (at times), especially during the Depression years. The film opens with archival footage of the American jazz Gralton grew to love during his first decade of living in New York, before he returned to his two “mas”—Ireland itself and his own mother, played by a hearty Aileen Henry—to help out with the farm.
Still at home is the love of his life, Oonagh (Simone Kirby), as well as entrenched priests and conservative forces, despite the years of struggle (chronicled in Loach's 2006 Cannes winner The Wind That Shakes the Barley). The “masters and pastors,” as one character calls them, include the highly effective Father Sheridan (Jim Norton of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). Though he declaims throughout against Jimmy and especially the Americanization of music—what's wrong with harps? he wants to know—there is a startling scene as we get to peek at him in his room, listening to an African-American singer on a gramophone. He's sussing out what he calls the “pelvic thrusts” of jazz and what they might add to the already-potent Irish brew of dancing, talking, left-wing politics and all down at the rural crossroads: sure dwelling spot of the Devil.
Loach is a pure spirit in the world of directing, for more than 40 years sticking to his vision of the betrayal of the working class—in movies for the BBC, in docs, in features—though there are rumors this may be his last film. He and his longtime scriptwriter Paul Laverty combed Irish history to find a figure you might see as Loach's intellectual double; maybe this accounts for some of the speechifying dialogue as various political positions are explained, jarring at times in a film of action shots and escaping out windows. But for Jimmy's Hall, we have the enlivening help of cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who offers a more realistic mix of green and brown than the standard verdant Gaelic hues, sudden close-up views of black sods of earth being worked, and spontaneous-seeming outdoor dance leap-ups as kids joyously move.
As with the shot of folks on bicycles pedaling away in support of their folk hero Jimmy at the film's conclusion, it's real populism at work.