In Jimmy’s Hall, Irish politics circa the 1930s have set the stage for something like Footloose, though with brogues instead of Kevin Bacon. Based on the real-life tribulations of communist rouser of rabbles Jimmy Gralton (played by Barry Ward), the film follows his battle to keep his dance hall open against the pressures of the local Catholic Church and conservative leaders. Having recently returned from a decade-long exile in America, Jimmy reopens his eponymous hall so that it can serve as a hotbed for such sinful activities as open philosophical debate and playing jazz music. The story doesn’t sugarcoat Gralton’s eventual fate: For his efforts, he (historical spoiler alert) became the only Irishman to ever be deported from Ireland.
Authority (the “masters and the pastors” as one character puts it) has no moral compunction when it comes to protecting itself. Jimmy’s Hall refuses to offer false hope for aspiring changemakers. Nor does it make them angels, or the agents of authority demons. Longtime director/screenwriter pair Ken Loach and Paul Laverty present their cast less as capital-I Important historical movers and shakers than as merely the latest iteration of an ongoing war between progress and regress. It’s a conflict that never ends—it just changes. Jimmy is an old soldier on the cusp of rotating out, and the movie reflects his weary melancholy. The world has moved past all these people (on both sides of their controversy) more quickly than any of them could affect it as much as they wanted to.
Loach and Laverty have been stalwart activists for a long time, and it’s hard not to see the film as an imprint of how one imagines they must feel. If this turns out to be Loach’s last feature, as has been rumored, then it’s an appropriate punctuation mark on his career—though less an emphatic exclamation point than a quiet period. The slow, sometimes still imagery and languid editing reinforce this atmosphere. An impassioned community march in support of a poor family evicted by a rich landowner feels quite gentle, even when guns start getting waved about. It’s downright enervating at times.
Jimmy’s Hall is a nice film, and by that I mean that it is nice in its treatment of its characters and themes, and nice to its audience. It’s this year’s Pride; a movie about social movements that you can take your conservative parents to. Which might sound like a putdown, but I assure that it is not.