Ireland has a long and difficult history. It is hardly surprising that its pantheon of folk heroes includes a significant number of rebels and martyrs. This tradition has continued to this day, with propagation of their stories through songs, murals and movies. Jimmy’s Hall is an example of the latter, made by the veteran non-Irish film maker, Ken Loach.

The movie is about Jimmy Gralton, the only Irishman ever deported from his own country. It opens with Jimmy (Barry Ward) and a friend riding a horse and cart in a lush rural landscape. Beneath this sedate action are a short series of subtitles back grounding the circumstances of Irish history from the period of the Civil War 1919-22 to 1932 when the movie is set. This picture/word combination is symbolic of the overall approach Loach takes to his story. In his previous The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) the politics of Ireland during the civil war period was front and centre. Here the complexity of the political scene is covered far more lightly, in preference to more romantic, personal and lyrical interests.

Following the opening scene, we see Jimmy arriving at a rustic homestead. His mother, a wizened salt-of-the-earth type is pleased to see the return of her prodigal offspring. It transpires Jimmy joined the substantial Irish diaspora and has spent a decade away in America. Soon after being welcomed back, we learn that Jimmy has a reputation as both a radical agitator and inspiration to the younger members of the community looking to break from the stifling Catholic conservatism of their country. Their hopes are ignited by the possibility Jimmy will re-open an abandoned hall that once served as a focal point for dancing, art, education and agitation prior to his departure overseas. Sure enough, in no time at all, that’s exactly what has happened. Jimmy and his associates are set on course for a confrontation with the powers of the establishment, represented most prominently by the local priest Father Sheridan (Jim Norton).

Loach has a decades-long commitment to left-wing and radical politics and there is no doubt where his sympathies are in the story. As portrayed by Ward, Jimmy is a handsome, pure-hearted and charismatic man-of-the-people. His sole purpose in life is to serve others, with the good of the community his only motive. Perhaps Gralton really was a good guy, but the movie paints such a one sided portrait that it almost undermines Loach’s own good intentions. When a throng of admiring teenagers flock around Jimmy and beg him to re-establish the hall it’s almost like a Socialist Realist picture come to life. They beam at him as exuberantly as any peasant does at Stalin or Mao in those kitsch propaganda posters that once bedecked every village hall in their countries. At other times, the ‘kids just wanna dance’ message has the tone of a Mickey Rooney gee-shucks flick from the 40’s or even Dirty Dancing (1987), when a fictional love interest for Jimmy is found in the character of Oonagh (Simone Kirby).

There are aspects of the film that help mitigate the simplicity of the way Jimmy is viewed. Loach is shrewd in realising you need a complex villain to add weight to the hero through the back door as it were. Here he is well served by the brilliant acting of Jim Norton. Yes, he gives us a parish priest who means to control his flock on behalf of established values. However, we see a thinking man who is articulate and intelligent and nuanced. He really does have ties to the local community and does care about them as individuals in his own way. He can spit fire and brimstone with the best of them but also understands his opponent and doesn’t belittle him. At one point he has a conversation with an assistant (Andrew Scott) and reveals that he has never read Marx. Nevertheless, he is familiar with the practical example of the revolutionary unionist Wobblies in America and can see parallels to the acts of early Christian martyrs and therefore the likes of Gralton should not be under-estimated.

Another element of complexity is the way Loach allows improvisation by his actors. There are extended scenes in both …Barley and Land and Freedom (1995) where ordinary people debate the merits of political actions they could undertake. In this movie too there is an extended scene where Jimmy’s comrades are approached to participate in a forced re-instatement of a poor family who have been expelled from their modest home. There is no monolithic agreement on the issue. Each person present takes a slightly different attitude, some urging caution, others arguing for involvement. The way the actors are allowed to improvise their dialogue gives the scene an incredibly strong sense of realism. We are right there in the room with them and although they do opt to help the tenants, this does not seem like a foregone conclusion, but more the result of messy reality.

There are no big surprises in the rest of the story. Jimmy and his hall are doomed and we can never expect otherwise. We are treated to some great dancing, a few impassioned speeches on the part of both Jimmy and his clerical nemesis and a touching romantic scene or two between Jimmy and Oonagh. To sum up, Ken Loach is a master film maker who couldn’t make a bad movie if he tried. This work isn’t really up to his highest standards but even a lesser piece of whimsy by somebody of his calibre is watchable.