“Jimmy’s Hall” is a glimpse into Ireland in 1932 when the country was in a relative lull between wars, turmoil and strife. Director Ken Loach has consistently worked to bring the lives of the United Kingdom’s working class to cinema screens. “Jimmy’s Hall” is his second foray into Ireland following “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” in 2006. Loach’s new film fleshes out his fascination with real-life Irish political activist Jimmy Gralton (played by Barry Ward). After many confrontations with the local police and other authority figures, Gralton left Ireland in 1922 and spent a decade in New York as a political exile. The story told in “Jimmy’s Hall” begins when he returns to his hometown of Leitrim, a village in Ireland’s Border Region.
The film shows Gralton, in his 30s, reuniting — platonically — with his ex-girlfriend Oonagh (Simone Kirby), who is now married with kids. Oonagh is tired and overworked but in Jimmy’s presence she feels a zest for life that had been dormant for the past 10 years. She’s not the only one — others in the local community are excited by Jimmy’s homecoming and press him to reopen the church hall that he had fixed up before leaving. It was a place where the village could hold dance parties, boxing and art classes, concerts and poetry readings. Big problems ensue when the local Catholic priest, Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), tries to quash Jimmy’s renovation plans on the grounds that the hall will be a den of “shameful gyrating” and subversive jazz instead of traditional Irish dance and music. It’s like the Middle Ages all over again, with Father Sheridan accusing Jimmy and the hall-goers of being “atheists and whores.” Jimmy fights patiently for free speech and freedom of thought, but it’s a long, arduous and ultimately losing battle.
Ward brings a suitable warmth to the character of Gralton, who never lets his political passion get in the way of a personal nonviolent code of honor.
“I had always loved Loach’s films,” Ward tells The Japan Times. “When I was offered the part, I was overjoyed. I feel that Loach tells stories no one else wants to tell, because they’re too hard or not marketable enough or any of 100 other reasons. In any case, thank God for Ken Loach is what I always say.”
To prep for the role, Loach had Ward work on the farms near the shooting locations, so he would have calloused hands when filming started.
“Ken is a perfectionist and he’s very particular about working-class hands.”
Loach has a sizable fan base in Japan, and it’s to the domestic film industry’s credit that almost all of his feature films have been brought to these shores.
“It’s a sad thing, but in the U.K., most moviegoers just don’t watch Loach (films),” says Ward. “The acting community loves him. Everyone in films wants to work with him. He’s the professional’s professional and a distinctive auteur.” Ward added that though he himself is Irish and grew up in a typical working-class neighborhood in Dublin, he didn’t know much of anything about Gralton. “And here was an Englishman who wanted to make a film about him. I don’t mind telling you that I was a bit ashamed.”
In the film, Gralton is perhaps depicted as a tad too idealistic — an activist intent on changing the entire world. But Ward depicts him as a man who was dedicated to the idea of joy.
“He wanted life to be more than a struggle for survival and doing right by the Church. He wanted people to have the freedom to go after personal happiness, but in Ireland that went directly against the old teachings of the clergy.”
Even as recently as the 1990s — when Ward was a teen — Ireland was heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, not just politically but in a way that “cast a shadow over every aspect of our lives,” he says. “Growing up, we were pretty peaceful.” Ward says that hearing about the Troubles in Belfast was like hearing about a foreign country — “all that violence may as well have been in Lebanon.
“Some of the families in my neighborhood were staunchly Republican and they went around saying ‘bigoted’ to just about everyone, but we were young, and the contradictory complexities of (the conflict) was hard to grasp,” says Ward.
Compared to kids in Belfast, where everyone matured fast and hankered to get away to America with its promise of freedom and money, Ward feels that few of the people he grew up with felt a strong need to get to the U.S. He never felt seduced by American culture, and always had an affinity with Europe and its history.
“Even after I became an actor, I always aspired to work in European cinema. I felt like my Irish upbringing would work in my favor there.” By that, he means his upbringing ruled over by the Church and shaded by guilt.
“Guilt in Ireland is such a social thing,” he says. “Irish people love to have a good time but they feel guilty about having too much of a good time. Guilt is always there, and passed down through generations. The suicide rate among young men in Ireland is the highest in Europe, along with the rate of alcoholism.”
“One thing that strikes you about the confrontations between Gralton and Father Sheridan is that they share this mutual respect for each other,” says Ward. “A grudging respect to be sure, but it’s there. In that sense, Paul Laverty’s screenplay really does the characters justice. No one is depicted as two-dimensional and black-and-white. Even Father Sheridan has a humane side and understands Jimmy in a way that his supporters don’t really see. Same with Jimmy. He recognizes a fellow idealist in the Father, it’s just that they’re representing completely different points of view. But they share the same fervor. That’s part of what makes the story so fascinating.”