“Jimmy’s Hall” is an eye-opening period piece that takes us back to the dark days of the Irish Police State.
The British are non-entities in the post-Civil War Ireland of the 1930s. But the village that political exile Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) comes back to still has serious schisms and conflict. He’s a leftist, a union organizer, and “a communist” to the cranky old priest (Jim Norton) who makes it his business to keep Jimmy in line.
That should be no problem, as Jimmy’s agitating seems to have mellowed.
But the kids in the area are bored out of their skulls. Jimmy’s seen the big city (New York). He knows the latest dance steps, and none of this River Dancing nonsense. Won’t he reopen the old community center, Pearse Connolly Hall?
“We want to DANCE, Jimmy!”
That simple request in this pre-“Footloose” epoch opens Jimmy up to a world of abuse and opens every old wound of class warfare between the landed and the renters, backed by the IRA, between the theocratic Catholic Church and the government it backs, and Jimmy.
Because the Hall doesn’t just represent music and dancing. It’s about freedom, a place to meet, organize, debate, a place outside of the control of the Catholic Church, which, as the priest huffs, pretty much runs things in the Ireland of this era.
Leftist filmmaker Ken Loach (“The Wind that Shakes the Barley,” “Land Freedom”) sets up the conflict well, keeping his and the viewer’s outrage in check as the priest calls out the names of people who “dance” at the hall, teens are beaten by parents and the IRA tries to figure out which side to back in this skuffle.
There aren’t really any heroes here, as Gralton’s defiance has a simple, homey and inevitable feel and Ward underplays him — a man who has to keep his temper to stay in the country.
Even “the girl he left behind” element to this (mostly) true story (Simone Kirby) is conflicted, a married mother still drawn to her fiery first love, but not quite. Some of the edges are worn off the myopic priest, here and there, watering down the drama.
But Loach, a veteran of many an Irish-set film, captures the dozens of shades of green even in the nearly treeless hills of this corner of Ireland. And he makes his point with a minimum of fuss.
“Jimmy’s Hall” isn’t consequential or satisfying enough to rank among the best films about Irish politics during those formative years. But it does remind us of the sides people took, the powers given over to the church and the ways those powers were abused, even after the British Army marched north.
Cast: Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Jim Norton, Brían F. O’Byrne
Credits: Directed by Ken Loach, script by Paul Laverty based on a Donal O’Kelly play. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:46