Jimmy's Hall

What was supposed to be Ken Loach's final film – an overly theatrical adaptation of the play by Donal O'Kelly – is no great legacy

Jimmy's Hall was supposed to have been veteran director Ken Loach's final film. In fact he has distanced himself from this statement now and I for one – a long time fan – am very pleased, because Jimmy's Hall is no great legacy.

It starts, incongruously enough, with newsreel footage of depression era New York: all looming black and white tenements, pinched faces on street corners and 'Will work for food' sandwich boards. This is contrasted, to tremendous effect, with the rolling, verdant hills of Ireland.

Robbie Ryan's cinematography displays a reassuring green and pleasant land as Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) beetles through picture book valleys in a buggy. Surely this is a rebirth after the grit and filth of the new world?

It's 1932 and after ten years in the United States, Jimmy is on his way back to Leitram to help his mother (first timer Eileen Henry, genuinely marvelous throughout) run the farm after the death of his brother.

Jimmy, an idealistic young communist, had built a community hall 11 years earlier with the intention of providing a nexus of learning, entertainment and communal gathering outside the confines of church and state dogma. This proved unpopular with precisely those two entities and Jimmy left to avoid official chastisement.

He is determined to avoid stirring up trouble on his return – for about ten minutes. All it takes to change his mind is a mild rebuke from a girl he interrupts during an alfresco ceilidh, and a quick sniff around the old hall, which sends him off into a reverie. As he remembers, the washed out blues and greys of the abandoned hall are instantly transformed in a scene which puts me in mind of Dorothy stepping from the twister-tossed shack and out into Oz.

The hall was a socialist utopia of wood-planing, boxing and WB Yeats – we are treated to 'The Song of the Wandering Aengus' in its entirety, plus a short open forum discussion of the poem. It's like something from a university prospectus – but the forces of repression rear up in the form of Jim Norton's Father Sheridan.

It would be easy and obvious to mention bishop Len Brennan at this juncture, Norton's other personification of a corrupt and unanswerable church in the seminal television comedy series Father Ted, but it would be a disservice to the actor, who is far and away the best thing in the film.

Where the other characters tend to be cardboard cut-outs mouthing truisms, Norton's conflicted priest shows actual growth in the ten years since Jimmy has been away. He admires the man, he drinks his whisky and listens to his blues records. Turning boggled-eyed to a younger priest (Andrew Scott), he slurs: 'That's the voice of a black woman. Quite remarkable.'

When Norton is on screen everything is enlivened, nuanced. The dialogue is less lumpen, more considered. If in other scenes Jimmy teaches in parables – a socialist sermon on the mount – his confrontations with Sheridan have genuine fire. They are Christ's temptation in the wilderness, both combatants tilting at one another, respectful but edgy, aware of the other's power.

Screenwriter Paul Laverty's adaptation Donal O'Kelly's play is the major issue here. The film feels theatrical, creakily staged, with long windy bursts of rhetoric – everything is spelled out. There is nothing for the audience to do but watch the long green grass waving and boo the baddies.

The framework of the story – 'lets do the show right here' – would fit neatly into a near contemporaneous Mickey Rooney movie. But, of course, that's Hollywood – Jimmy Gralton was real.

He is arrested finally and deported without trial: the first (and presumably last) Irishman this was done to. He never returned home. The notion – as Jimmy is literally carted away, flanked by the young people on their bicycles – is that he has changed them, that he has planted something in their hearts. That's what Ken Loach's films have often done to me in the past. And I'm hoping that his next one gets me there again.

Jimmy's Hall is in Movie House Cinemas now.