SOME have erroneously seen Jimmy's Hall (Cert. 12A) as
a scathing attack on Roman Catholicism. Its director, Ken Loach,
once told me with a broad smile that several of his screenwriters
were "left-footers". His current one, Paul Laverty, was a
seminarian. Moreover, Loach said how much he admired "people like
you", meaning clergy who daily have to deal with many difficult
situations. Loach and Laverty are merely exposing in this new film
the oppressive collusion between one particular Church and
It is 1932, and a real-life activist, Jimmy Gralton, returns to
County Leitrim after time in New York, having left in a hurry
during the Irish Civil War (1922-23). The film concentrates on the
village hall that he built before leaving, now closed. The RC
Church and politicians forced this, fearing that it bred communist
and free-spirited tendencies. Jimmy (the Dublin actor Barry Ward)
is persuaded by friends to restore it. Attempts at education
(poetry readings) and exercise (a boxing club) for an impoverished
community quickly fall foul of Fr Sheridan, played by Jim Norton.
These tasks, he says, are "the sole prerogative of Holy Church".
And. when they organise a dance involving not only Irish music but
jazz, too, the priest denounces by name all those in the
congregation who attended.
Such ecclesiastical opposition at that stage of the 20th century
may seem alien in England, where Christian Socialism, the YMCA, and
the Workers' Educational Association (founded by a Reader)
encouraged these very activities. But, unlike British religion's
"melancholy, long, withdrawing roar", the grip of Irish Roman
Catholicism remained very tight.
Fortunately, the parish priest is not portrayed as a pantomime
villain. He respects many of Gralton's qualities. Indeed, little
truly separates their outlooks. Both passionately believe in loving
their neighbour, but, as Sheridan points out to his colleague Fr
Seamus (Andrew Scott), one derives this understanding from Jesus,
the other from the Communist manifesto. He invokes the spectre of
Stalinist Russia. Its cruelties and atheism energise his efforts to
prevent anything similar in Ireland. Though small in the great
scheme of things, this village hall represents an enormous threat
to the future stability of Ireland and the RC Church.
Seamus sees things differently. He counsels tolerance.
Repression breeds belligerence, he says. But Gralton and Sheridan
are, as we would expect, on a collision course. It is all a bit too
predictable, even if one knew nothing of the historical facts. And,
while our sympathies lie with the community, not the landed gentry
whom the national Church defends, we see at parochial level two
other aspects of the part played by the Church in society. Seamus
is prophetic, denouncing those who abuse their power. On the other
hand, Sheridan's mediating influence possibly gets better
Even so, Loach's earlier foray into Irish politics, The Wind
that Shakes the Barley, which was steadfastly secular, packs
more of a punch. He hasn't managed to make the Church as
interesting in the current film. Perhaps his respect for the clergy
made it harder to pull off.
WHILE wondering how many converts to religious belief Heaven
is for Real (Cert. PG) will garner, I am in no doubt that the
celestial has made megabucks for Sony Pictures in the United
States, but the limited release of this film in the UK may reflect
distributors' judging us to be more sceptical.
The film is based on the true-life account of a young boy,
Colton Burpo (Connor Corum), who claims that during a near-death
experience he visited heaven. Of course, if heaven is only for
those who have died, then being near to dying isn't quite the same.
Colton's guileless ability to recall particulars of people he had
never met or things of which he was ignorant may well convince
Greg Kinnear (As Good As It Gets, The
Kennedys) plays Todd, the boy's father, struggling to keep his
business going. He is also a pastor. In cinematic terms, Todd's
function is to help the audience identify with a questioning point
of view. As pastor, Todd weighs up carefully what people tell him,
frequently taking their accounts with a pinch of salt.
The film plays this aspect for all its worth, Colton's
revelations present a threat as well as promise to fellow citizens
of this small-town community. Thomas Haden Church (the wayward
fiancé in Sideways) is the family friend who highlights
the social implications of the vision that has Colton had. Perhaps
inevitably, the father brings us round to perceiving life as
stepping stones towards a realised eschatology. "Haven't we already
had a glimpse of something in the first cry of a baby?" asks
Maybe I expected too much in wanting the film to examine
elements of those Last Things, such as giving judgement more than a
walk-on part. Colton says that in heaven everybody's young, and
seems to be suggesting somewhere round the terrible twos typifies
Richard Holloway, the former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal
Church, wrote in his memoir Leaving Alexandria that
"pooling your doubts, sharing your uncertainties . . . will never
persuade multitudes. What persuades or converts others is always
dramatic conviction dramatically expressed."
We definitely get that in Heaven is for Real, and
American audiences have lapped it up. Furthermore, there is
undoubtedly a heavenly quality to cinema. Films create things that
exist outside the real world, and taunt us with their well-ordered
excellence. This film's director and co-writer, Randall Wallace,
who won Best Director Oscar for Braveheart, would concur.
His colourful version of William Wallace's fight for Scottish
independence was based, he said, on an account that spoke to his
Using a little more head on both films might have improved them;
but Wallace's financiers' more than redress this imbalance. Their
heads were clearly well screwed on, and they recognised good
box-office when they saw it.