When’s the last time you held a lover in your arms and danced with feeling?
As I have noted before, there are times that special independent films come and go with little publicity. And just like Director Ken Loach recently accomplished with The Angels’ Share (2012), he repeats with the warm and engaging Jimmy’s Hall. Focusing on what life was like in Ireland in 1932, Mr. Loach’s camera follows struggling Irish families who were exploited and all but ignored by a borderline fascist government and its collaborator, the Roman Catholic Church.
I grew up as a member of the Catholic Church in a small town in Southern Indiana. Among other things, we were taught to follow the church’s teachings, which included a condemnation to hell if you ate meat on Friday, not to mention that you had to have the finances to buy indulgences to lessen your stay in purgatory. Even as a kid I wondered if Jesus would be disappointed.
However, though the Roman Catholic Church has repeatedly hidden skeletons in its religious closet as reflected by its recent attempts to ignore rampant sexual abuse by many of its priests around the world, I am one of those people who can no longer go to Church until its discrimination against women comes to an end. While it has thankfully ended its role in burning women at the stake as reflected by the death of Joan of Arc in 1431, it still endorses a policy that finds women inadequate to serve as priests. This antiquated, authoritarian position is clearly demonstrated in Mr. Loach’s film, and it provides a history lesson that cannot be ignored.
Based on a true story, Jimmy’s Hall focuses on the return of James Gralton (Barry Ward) to Ireland after having fled to the United States in 1922. Mr. Gralton was forced to leave his beloved Ireland when his work at a local music hall became unacceptable to the government who thought he was inspiring the poor and disadvantaged to challenge authority.
Finally back home, Mr. Gralton soon restores his old music hall and introduced the locals to the dance craze sweeping America during the raucous 1920s. This again upset the Church, as they thought it was obscene that local girls were dancing to music inspired by dreaded “negroes” who had fled Africa.
It quickly becomes apparent that a battle is looming, and the question remains whether Mr. Gralton will again be forced to leave Ireland. Leading the charge is Father Sheridan, a staunch Catholic conservative from the old school who preached that the role of Catholics was to accept their lot in life and attend church every Sunday where you could make appropriate contributions. Jim Norton gives a compelling performance as the dreaded Father Sheridan, and Mr. Gralton is again brought to the edge of doom.
While the film’s storyline covers more subject matter than Mr. Loach can adequately cover in his relatively short film, its strength comes from its music. There are some charming moments where Mr. Gralton’s financially disadvantaged friends join together to dance, and the moment where he ends up dancing alone with an old lover who married in his absence is a romantic moment that will charm everyone in the theater.
The history of the Western World constantly involves moments where the wealthy win and the poor lose, and you basically know where this film is heading. This is the very reason that I cherish Mr. Loach’s films, as what occurred in Ireland in 1932 is happening in the United States in 2015. And if you doubt that conclusion, please explain why we fight raising the minimum wage while backing tax breaks for the wealthy.
I can only thank the Good Lord that we have Francis now occupying the papacy. Maybe the Catholic Church can finally reject allocating money for pomp and circumstance and remember Christ’s teachings that “what you do unto the least among us, you do unto me.”