Movie Review: Jimmy’s Hall

jimmy's hall

A teenager moves from the big city to a small town where rock music and dancing have been banned. His rebellious spirit shakes up the populace.

– FOOTLOOSE (1984) synopsis

Set during the Depression, a man returns to his home in the Irish countryside after ten years of living in the big city. Hoping to lead a quiet life, his rebellious spirit reawakens as he reopens a dance hall, shaking up the social order in the village.

– JIMMY’S HALL (2014) synopsis

After watching acclaimed director Ken Loach’s latest film, JIMMY’S HALL, I have to wonder if at any point during the production someone turned to Loach and said, “Um, Ken, this looks an awful lot like a Depression-era, Irish remake of FOOTLOOSE.” I would be shocked to hear that no one had noticed the similarity.

JIMMY’S HALL is a nicely shot period piece that fails due to its bad writing. Based on Donal O’Kelly’s play, Jimmy Gralton’s Dancehall, and adapted for the screen by Paul Laverty (who also wrote Loach’s Palme d’Or winning film, THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY), JIMMY’S HALL tells the little-known story of James Gralton who, in 1933, became the only Irish citizen ever to have been deported from the country. Gralton had dual Irish and US citizenship, having immigrated to the States in 1909. While there, he worked a variety of jobs and, after witnessing first-hand the slave-like working conditions there, he became involved in trade union activity.

The film opens in 1932, ten years after the end of the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent establishment of the Irish Free State. Although there was much optimism after the war that Ireland would finally have self-determination, that feeling didn’t last as “the masters and the pastors” were still in charge when the dust settled. Landowners were throwing tenant families off their land if they were in arrears on their rent, and church leaders were crushing dissidence in their parishes through a heady combination of coercion and intimidation.

It is at this time that Gralton returns home to the north-central county of Leitrim hoping to settle down and lead a “quiet life”, but that is not to be. The town had lost its very popular community centre back in 1921 when the Black and Tans shut it down. It appears that the Powers-that-be saw (and still see, ten years on) dancing as that first step on the slippery slope that leads to the Red Menace taking over the Emerald Isle. Encouraged by his friends and the town’s youth, Gralton decides to reopen the club. The place quickly becomes the focal point for the townsfolk, offering such subversive activities as poetry reading, drawing classes, boxing lessons and (gasp!) dancing. Gralton introduces his friends to jazz music, which they take to like people who suddenly find their shackles of oppression removed. Typically, Father Sheridan sees the Marxist devil at work here and he starts naming and shaming the younger members of this coffee society. If people start thinking for themselves, he feels, what’s next?

Things come to a head with Gralton’s arrest but he manages to elude the police and hide out for a few months. When the law finally does catch up with him, he is processed and put on a steamer to the US, never to see his ma and the shamrocks again.

There are few filmmakers who are as consistent in tackling working class themes as Loach, so it’s not surprising that he would take on this story. Unfortunately, it is so thin there’s not much to work with. Instead we’re given long dancing sequences to fill out the film’s running time of 109 minutes. Granted, they’re nice to watch but do they really tell us about Gralton’s politics? Aside from the less than rousing public oration he gave when he and his friends returned a farmhouse to its tenant and the stilted dressing down he gave to the reverend, we don’t get a strong sense of Gralton’s Marxist ideals. Where are all the scenes of him discussing and debating the virtues of communism with his friends and mother? The film really hit rock bottom when, at the end, one of the town’s young women assured Jimmy that they’ll keep on dancing even after he’s gone. Really? They’ll just keep dancing? That’s the extent of their commitment to building a fair and just world?

Following the barely lukewarm reception the film received when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014, Loach, now 79, downplayed his previous comments that this would be his last film. For his sake, it would be sad if JIMMY’S HALL would be his farewell to filmmaking.

Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 29:50.)

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