2014, PG-13, 109 min. Directed by Ken Loach. Starring Barry Ward, Francis Magee, Aileen Henry, Simone Kirby, Aisling Franciosi, Jim Norton, Brían F. O’Bryrne, Andrew Scott.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., July 31, 2015
If you ever thought Footloose might’ve been improved with an Irish brogue and a short pour of agitprop, then by all means look to this latest from Ken Loach, Britain’s elder statesman of cinema and its evergreen champion of the working class.
Early title cards attempt to quickly contextualize a knotty history (probably unfamiliar to American audiences) about the Irish War of Independence and the tensions that continued long after the ceasefire. The personal emerges as more compelling than the political and historical in this dramatization of real-life figure Jimmy Gralton (Ward), a firebrand who returns in 1932 to County Leitrim after a decade away in America. Jimmy means to live a quiet life tending to his aging ma, but soon enough he’s pulled back to his old, agitative ways, much to the dismay of the easily ruffled Catholic priests, tyrannical landowners, and law enforcement. Seeing the village youth dancing in the street because there’s nowhere else to meet, Jimmy decides to revive a long-dormant community center he once constructed with likeminded socialist friends.
The hall is built for a lot of things – poetry readings, art classes, boxing lessons – but most important, it’s a place for dance, and it’s in dance that Jimmy’s Hall proves most stirring. There are plenty of occasions for dance – most winningly, when Jimmy introduces American jazz records to his countrymen and teaches them the pelvic thrust. (Notably, some stiff supporting performances become limber with less talk, more action.) Loach and his frequent scriptwriter Paul Laverty make these sequences electric with movement and alert to the meaning two people can cram into a two-minute clutch – the profound arousal, say, in shared breath. But Loach and Laverty sketch the conspiring church and ruling class less roundedly as generic baddies who finger Jimmy as a Communist. Curiously, the filmmakers are cagier about putting labels, or even a clearly articulated philosophy, on this historic figure, rendering Jimmy’s call to actions as catch-all, fight-the-power stump speeches. The toe taps, eager to get back to the dance floor.