Wearing a big progressive heart on its union-made sleeve, Jimmy’s Hall could easily have been a carefree lark about good times and toothless rebellion, if it had been directed by somebody besides Ken Loach. Another filmmaker, one without a political vertebrae to speak of, could have conjured up a piece of twee Irish fun that would have been twice as fun to watch but several times more pointless. Loach does have a thing for speeches. While they drag the film to a halt more than once, there’s a bright and touching sincerity running throughout that makes that wandering stodginess not matter so much.
The story: Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) comes back to his small Irish village in 1932, ten years after escaping to America, he tries to keep to himself and help out Ma on the farm. His old love, Oonagh (Simone Kirby), keeps drawing his eye even though she’s married now with kids. But Jimmy’s past won’t stay past. Youngsters heard about the community hall he once ran with poetry and art classes and labor meetings and, most importantly, dancing. Jimmy fixes up the old hall and just like that, the town sparks back to life. However, parish priest Father Sheridan (Jim Norton) and other bluenoses don’t like what Jimmy and his comrades get up to down at the hall, with their reading non-approved books and dancing to jazz music. It’s a threat to the old order and must be stopped. But the kids want to dance. There you have it: Footloose in the green hills of County Leitrim, cloth caps instead of ‘80s perms.
Only it’s not. For one, Jimmy isn’t just a rakish, jazz-loving rebel with a great tangle of flyaway hair and a gift for plainspoken but soaring rhetoric about equality. He’s an organizer of the old school, a workingman and autodidact who could just as soon plow a field as he could lecture about Marx and the causes of the Great Depression. When people want to restore a penniless tenant farmer to his land after a wealthy lord throws him off, Jimmy’s the one they call. With his charm and free-thinking ways, he’s also the one whom a disturbed but still admiring Sheridan considers as much a threat as church fathers once did the English-language Tyndale Bible; once the people discover other ideas to follow than those prescribed by “mother church,” who knows where things might lead?
Most films about conflict in Ireland focus on historically stark divides: the internecine Catholic-Protestant urban guerrilla warfare of the Troubles, or the anti-colonial revolt against the British. Jimmy’s Hall thrums to a different kind of warfare. Following the peace treaty and withdrawal of British troops from most of Ireland, and the end of the Civil War between the pro- and anti-treaty forces, there were still age-old struggles to fight: propertied versus the poor, the Catholic Church versus any societal change at all.
This is a lot of weight for a film with this simple a plot to carry. As in Loach’s weightier pieces like Land and Freedom, his tendentious epic on the Spanish Civil War, he delivers all that information not through subtle background details but via speechifying. In one scene after another, Jimmy or an ally spouts off about various injustices, whether it’s the chuch stifling all joy and free thought or the wealthy letting land go fallow while indebted farmers starve. Fortunately for the film, these propositions are all somewhat difficult to argue with. Too many of those soliloquies, from a starched and nuance-free screenplay by Paul Laverty, threaten to turn a strong batch of performers into marionettes.
Fortunately the lighter character work Loach showcased in 2013’s The Angels’ Share, as well as the sparkling cinematography by Robbie Ryan, compensates for much of that stiffness. The boisterous scenes of people dancing or gabbing in the community hall just flow by on the charming strengths of this mix of ace performers and unprofessionals. Ward, with his Aiden Gillen-esque ranginess, is particularly adept at commanding the screen whenever he appears; he seems equally close to leading the workers’ revolt or becoming an overnight Hollywood A-lister. There’s a crackling energy to Ward’s scenes with the equally perfectly attuned Norton, where Jimmy and Sheridan seem to be unable to decide whether to beat each other down or stay up all night arguing politics over whiskey. Jimmy’s Hall could have used more of that. For a film all about the people, it could stand to spend more time listening to them.