There’s more room for heroes in the world than there is for movies about them; names that deserve to be immortalized onscreen can get lost to history. Jimmy’s Hall, a sturdy political drama from esteemed director Ken Loach, attempts to rescue Jimmy Gralton’s name from obscurity. It’s a small tale of immense courage, and Loach brings it to life with efficiency, subtlety, and a keen eye for what matters.
In 1932, Gralton (Barry Ward) returns to his small hometown in Ireland to help his aging mother take care of the family farm. Because he spent ten years in New York City, the local teens immediately view him as a source of worldly knowledge, and they convince him to re-open the local dance hall that the church had closed down before he went overseas. With the help of a few eager friends and an old flame (Simone Kirby), now married with two children, he fixes up the hall and creates a community space where teens and adults alike can dance, teach, take art classes, and, perhaps most importantly, organize politically.
Yes, it’s at this point that Jimmy’s Hall starts to resemble an Irish version of Footloose, although the dancing is far more subdued. The church’s cantankerous, old priest (Jim Norton) predicts trouble from the hall long before politics even enter the scene. He doesn’t appreciate the jazz music Jimmy has brought back from New York, the dancing, or the library stocked with books unsanctioned by the church. More than that, he foresees the danger of real political power springing up from a place where ordinary people congregate—a place that isn’t a church.
It’s such a politically rich central conflict that when that when Jimmy (and the film) turn overtly political late in the second act, it feels shoe-horned in. After a wealthy landowner wrongfully evicts a worker, Jimmy agrees to lead the people in a protest. The scene is effectively dramatic—guns and fists guarantee tension—but Loach never follows up to see how it turned out. Or how any of this turns out, for that matter. Those who turn to the Internet after the credits roll to learn the real story of Gralton will discover that these actions led to the formation of the Irish Communist Party, but the film only hints at such grand political strokes.
It might have been smarter to leave them out together, as the story has tremendous power on its own simple terms. Loach gets winningly naturalistic performances out of his cast (several of them stumble over their lines, and it works), which makes up for the clunky dialogue and the one-dimensional nature of the characters. There is little poetry in the script by Paul Laverty, but Loach finds it anyway in the lush Irish countryside, the everyday bravery of its people, and the resonance of a political idea—populism—that may be as timely as ever.
Jimmy’s Hall opens Friday at Bethesda Row.