Directed by: Ken Loach
Premise: Set in rural Ireland in 1932, communist organizer Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) returns to his hometown after spending a decade in America. He and his allies refurbish a dance hall which becomes the target of authorities and a zealous priest (Jim Norton).
What Works: There are two jobs of a historical film. The first is to recreate a moment in the past and the second is to link the events of the past with the present. The filmmakers of Jimmy’s Hall fulfill both of those objectives. The movie takes place a decade after the Irish Civil War and activist Jimmy Gralton has returned from living abroad to help his mother with the family farm. Much of the movie takes place in rural locations and there is a grit to the style of the film that is convincing. Jimmy’s Hall does not look like it was shot on a movie set and the performances by the actors are all quite natural rather than the melodramatic acting style often found in period pieces. Gralton’s return reopens the wounds of the Irish Civil War. As the film depicts it, the aftermath of the war resulted in severe social stratification and a dramatic divide between the rich and the poor. The local Catholic Church has aligned itself with the anti-communist power structure and when Gralton and his friends reopen a local dance hall they find themselves targets of the authorities. The story of Jimmy’s Hall is being dramatized at a moment in which the world economy parallels many of the facets of the time and place dramatized on screen. Filmmaker Ken Loach is known for making political dramas about Irish history like The Wind That Shakes the Barleyand Hidden Agenda and many of his films are quite provocative. The story of Jimmy’s Hall shares the politics of Loach’s other films but it isn’t quite as in-your-face about it. There are a lot of other elements to the lives of these people beyond their political agendas. The struggle of the movie is partly about economics but it is also about the youth trying to wrestle away their future from the older generation. That’s nicely embodied in the jazz music and the dancing that are the main draw of the hall. This sends the local priest into a moral panic but like most social crusades the moral outrage is really a cover for something else. Jimmy’s Hall is ultimately a film about a divided community with young people trying to realize a better world and the establishment trying to keep the old order in place. That conflict over community identity gets ugly in a hurry, as it usually does, and the characters are faced with complex conflicts about what they fight for and the means they employ to do so.
What Doesn’t: Jimmy’s Hall is a movie about Irish history made by Irish filmmakers. Audiences who don’t have much of an understanding of early twentieth century Irish and European history may find the movie confusing. There are subtleties in the character relationships and in the political agendas that will be lost on viewers who don’t know the historical background and the moviemakers don’t provide much in the way of exposition to set up the context. Jimmy’s Hall repurposes an underdog story; in this film a group of young upstarts challenge the establishment but the filmmakers have a complicated relationship with the politics of their hero. Jimmy Gralton was a communist but Gralton never quite owns the label in this movie. He speaks about the rights of workers but in broad strokes; when he’s accused of being a communist Gralton defers to talk of charity and love for his fellow man. Most of the action at the hall is not communist rhetoric but dancing to jazz music and so Jimmy’s Hall comes across more like Footloose than Battleship Potemkin. Gralton and company are attacked for their beliefs but never truly articulate and defend those ideas. That’s at least a little disingenuous especially since the events of this story take place in the era of Joseph Stalin.
DVD extras: Commentary track, deleted scenes, featurette, trailers.
Bottom Line: Jimmy’s Hall is a solid drama that makes some provocative parallels between the past and the present. It’s also gratifyingly complex with some nuanced characters and moral conflicts.
Episode: #574 (December 20, 2015)