“Jimmy’s Hall” tells the story of Jimmy Gralton, the 20th-century communist leader and political activist who holds the distinction of being the only Irishman ever deported from Ireland. His offenses included running a hall where townsfolk committed the double sin of discussing socialist principles and dancing with abandon.
Directed by Ken Loach, who has been making old-fashioned, unashamedly leftist, radiantly humanist cinema since the 1960s, the film is a foot-stompingly enjoyable biopic.
Familiar Loach themes such as economic injustice, community camaraderie and the hopes and compromises of ordinary people fill the movie, which is written by frequent Loach collaborator Paul Laverty. It transpires in Ireland’s Country Leitrim, mostly in the depression-era early 1930s. Church and state are colluding to keep communism out of the picture and citizens under their grip.
Back home after living in the United States for a decade, popular firebrand Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) intends merely to help out his aging mother. The local young people, however, want Jimmy to reopen the dance and meeting hall he used to operate. Naturally, Jimmy can’t resist. Soon, people are dancing, taking art classes and talking radical politics.
This riles, in particular, the Catholic Church and parish priest Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), who views Jimmy as a threat. Additional antagonists include the proto-fascist Army Comrades Association.
When Jimmy makes a speech supporting an evicted family and blasting class divisions, his adversaries react viciously. Jimmy is deported to the U.S.
Bound to be described as an Irish “Footloose,” the film pales next to Loach’s richer Ireland-set “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.”
The script sometimes gets preachy, and the heroes and villains contain few shades. The too-perfect Jimmy treats his mother devotedly and his now-married former sweetheart (Simone Kirby), a fabricated character, virtuously.
Jimmy dances the latest steps and, played charismatically by Ward, looks like a movie star. Father Sheridan, while not without nuance, is generally a one-note villain.
Yet Loach has a way of making everyday people and mundane lives vibrant and affecting. He makes Jimmy’s hall a stirring place to be.
While the political discourse here doesn’t compare with the town-hall meeting in Loach’s “Land and Freedom,” Loach remains one of the few well-known filmmakers who deal with politics seriously. When Jimmy and company discuss whether Jimmy should deliver his anti-eviction speech, viewers feel the urgency.
Music and dance scenes – with fiddlers, gramophone jazz and faces that have stories to tell – resonate with collective spirit and debunk the notion that communists have no fun.
Loach aims for genuineness by sometimes casting nonactors. Aileen Henry, playing Jimmy’s quietly defiant mother, is thoroughly convincing.
Starring: Barry Ward, Jim Norton, Simone Kirby, Aileen Henry
Written by: Paul Laverty
Directed by: Ken Loach
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes