Jimmy’s Hall—The AllMovie Review

★ ★ ★ ★

Director Ken Loach won the 2006 Palme d’Or for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, his historical drama about two brothers who are slowly drawn to opposite sides of the Irish Civil War of the 1920s. His latest film, Jimmy’s Hall, isn’t exactly a sequel to that earlier movie, but it also uses the lens of a personal story to examine the fissures of a divided Ireland.

Loosely based on the life of Irish political activist Jimmy Gralton, the film opens in 1932 as Gralton (Barry Ward) returns to his hometown following a ten-year exile in America. He’s back to help his elderly mother run her farm, but the reasons for his long departure are kept hazy: Something about him is politically radioactive, and the local government and Catholic leaders are keeping an eye on him for any signs of trouble. Despite his protests that he only wants to live a quiet life and not bother anyone, Gralton is unexpectedly thrown into a new controversy when the locals convince him to renovate and reopen a community dance hall that he helped found years ago. Even a seemingly innocuous venture like this is freighted with political meaning in a nation still shattered by the bloodshed of a decade earlier, and Gralton is not so subtly pressured to close the building down — not only by the pro-British government, who see it as a hotbed for communist activity, but also by a crotchety priest named Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), who thunders from his pulpit that the hall’s jazz music from “darkest Africa” has the power to corrupt young people and cause the “Los Angeles-ization” of their town.

Gralton’s clashes with the authorities eventually draw him back to his calling as an activist, fighting for the rights of poor tenants being exploited by wealthy landowners. While a typical American film would have reduced Gralton to a generic, uncontroversial hero — someone who’s simply sticking up for the poor and dismayed by the hypocrisies of the Catholic Church — here’s where the most fascinating aspect of the movie reveals itself: The protagonist of Jimmy’s Hall is an avowed communist and atheist. (Seriously, what’s the last U.S. wide release where the hero was either of those things?). Loach, to be sure, doesn’t go all the way into making him an uncompromising firebrand (he tries to be respectful during his arguments with Father Sheridan, for instance), but these details situate the story in a real time and place, rather than feeling like a context-free struggle between the downtrodden and the powerful.

Despite these welcome complexities, the movie still has moments where Loach oversimplifies his message. A sequence in which he cuts back and forth between a raucous dance at the hall and a fire-and-brimstone sermon Father Sheridan gives the following morning is exciting, but it seems crafted to make the priest seem as loathsome and ridiculous as possible. Far more intriguing are the hints throughout that Sheridan despises Gralton’s beliefs but deeply respects his courage, revealing just a trace of ambiguity and doubt in his character. And while it’s easy for moviegoers today to laugh at the moral threat that dancing and jazz music pose, the film never forgets that Gralton’s actions really could reopen wounds in the community that nobody is capable of healing. While on the surface it might seem like a rousing but straightforward tale of fighting the power, Jimmy’s Hall is both deeply intimate and a microcosm of a larger historical moment.