Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 49 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.
With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue can break bones.
Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well.
Ken Loach’s newest, and allegedly last (sadly), film centers on Jimmy Gralton, the only native Irishman to have been deported as an alien—all due to his radical political views and activities. Paul Laverty’s screenplay sets us down in 1932 when Jimmy (Barry Ward), who had fought in the Irish War of Independence, is returning home from exile in New York City to care for his aging mother following the death of one of his siblings. The cart he is riding in is stopped because a group dance held at the roadside is blocking the road itself. They recognize Jimmy, and many of them are present at the large party welcoming him home. As he passes by the old dance hall he can see that it has not been used for a long time.
An activist at heart despite his long period of inactivity, he is soon gathering people to refurbish the old hall that they built together earlier. It again becomes the center for him to spread his egalitarian beliefs, as well as the place for education, sewing, singing and dancing, and even for teaching boxing. Also a popular attraction is the wind-up gramophone with its huge horn that Jimmy has brought with him from America, plus a good supply of records.
The plight of the majority of the people has not improved much since independence, with landlords, many of them having benefitted in past generations from their alliance with the British, evicting hundreds of families from their homes due to the hard economic times of the Thirties. Jimmy finds himself coming up against the power of the Catholic Church, led by the local priest Father Sheridan (Jim Norton) who sides with the rich and powerful. We see the priest’s theocracatic view visualized when he points Jimmy’s attention to the symbolic painting on a wall of his study depicting the role of Mother Church—a bishop clad in splendid robes blesses a knight who kneels in obeisance before him. In one long sequence we see the joyful activities going on at the Hall interspersed with snatches of the priest, clad in his own splendid vestments, haranguing against the “Communist” Jimmy and the “debauched” activities transpiring at the infamous Hall.
Jimmy is not depicted as a doctrinaire Communist, though his economic and social views are such, and his Revolutionary Workers’ Group that he led is now considered a predecessor of the Communist Party of Ireland. He even meets with Father Sheridan, urging him to come and see for himself what is taking place at the Hall. He surprises the cleric when he offers him a place on the governing board, but the wary clergyman replies that he would accept only if the deed to the property were transferred to the Church.
Jimmy apparently eschews the violence espoused by Communists in the Soviet Union, as we see in the confrontation scene that moves close to the brink of armed conflict. Jimmy and a large column of marchers are escorting a family intending to take back the empty house from which a landlord had evicted them. Their horse-drawn cart is piled high with their old furniture. As they face the landlord and his hired guns (with the priest standing beside them), the latter threaten the locals as they draw and point their pistols at them. Immediately the supporters of the tenant family draw their own guns and aim back at their opponents. There is a tense standoff, one during which a false move could have resulted in much bloodshed at such a close range. It is Jimmy who insists that his supporters put away their weapons, and the others follow suit.
Jimmy’s story is told in a highly entertaining way, with a touch of romance added in the person of his former girlfriend Oonagh (Simone Kirby), who apparently married during his long absence and mothered two children. The film is filled with wonderful music, some of it consisting of jigs danced by groups, couples, and one, especially charming, by an 8 to 10 year-old girl accompanied by another girl of about the same age playing a tuneful fiddle. In a scene between the older Father Sheridan and a younger assistant, Father Seamus (Andrew Scott), we hear a snatch of singer Bessie Smith; and when Jimmy reluctantly agrees to show the adoring crowd some steps he learned in New York, I believe it is a Louise Armstrong tune we hear. Perhaps even more magical is a scene at night in the darkened hall when Jimmy embraces Oonagh and they dance in silence. She has donned for the first time the lovely dress that he had given her upon his return from America. (He had also brought a gift for her children.) After a few moments there is just a hint of a stringed instrument from time to time, the two gliding together to their inner music. By the end the background music is just discernable. These filmmakers know when “less is more.”
Some have seen the film as an attack on the role of the Catholic Church which held extreme power over the people prior to the sex scandal that has rocked it to its foundations. However, the filmmakers’ depiction is more nuanced than this in that they provide the younger priest, who calls into question his superior’s view. (“Superior” might be the wrong word, as I do not recall the film clarifying his status. His frank opposition to Father Sheridan might indicate that he pastored another Church and was therefore free to voice his protests.) This priest is bothered by the use of “Communist” to tar what he obviously sees as the good things going on in the Hall. At a gathering of landlords in a lavish drawing room he remarks that if Christ were here “there are some here who would crucify him. “
Also, Jimmy is shown sitting in the chapel of Father Sheridan’s large church waiting his turn at Confession. To the priest’s chagrin, after admitting that it’s been 25 years since his last such visit, Jimmy delivers what amounts to a moral scolding, telling the priest, “You have more hate in your heart than love.” This apparently hits home, because Father shares this with his colleague, his voice more reflective than defensive. Also, after a somewhat humorous escape from the police (aided by his mother), Jimmy is caught at last and loaded onto a cart, a number of his enemies (probably included some of those who earlier had shot into the hall during a dance night) taunt and jeer at him. Father Sheridan is there, but he does not join in the attempt to humiliate his foe. Raising a hand, he demands that the jeering stop, insisting that they pay Jimmy some respect. I don’t know whether this is the filmmakers’ invention, or historical, but it is a wonderful touch, reminding us that the heart of even a sworn can be touched by the right approach. This is a bittersweet conclusion, but a morally satisfying one as well.
The review with a set of discussion questions is in the September issue of VP.