By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 22, 2014 at 7:39AM
The social realist tendencies in British director Ken Loach's films started nearly half a century ago, so it's easy to forget that no matter his penchant for tackling serious issues with historical weight, he's also capable of crafting smooth entertainment—especially with his recent comedies "Looking for Eric" and "The Angels' Share"—without sacrificing their credibility and intelligence. At 77, Loach hasn't lost touch with this balance, as proven by his enjoyable period drama "Jimmy's Hall."
Though it features a dramatic scenario involving the censorship of a small Irish town in the early thirties, Loach manages to enliven potentially stuffy material with lively storytelling and likable personalities. Chief among them is real-life Irish communist Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward), who challenged the religious community in the provincial country town he grew up by creating a gathering place for locals to dance and engage in intellectual discussion. Naturally, that decision doesn't sit well with the Church and its devoted followers, but the source of oppression in "Jimmy's Hall" has less of a central role than the people who oppose it. A minor work by Loach's standards, the movie nevertheless marks his most enjoyable effort in years.
The main theme running through "Jimmy's Hall" is established in the credits, which feature Depression-era archival footage of New York City set to classic jazz; it's here that Gralton spent a decade enjoying the cultural scene before returning to his home town to share it with curious locals. These include his adult contemporaries, such as lady friend Oonagh (Simone Kirby), various old confidantes and a number of teenagers eager to explore the sensibilities of a distant world.
The Church quickly takes issue with Jimmy's meeting sessions, sending police to break up one dance night and reprimanding supportive locals by calling out their names between prayers. Without any fancy trickery, Loach allows the scenario to run its course from funny to sad, capturing the eager teens giggling among themselves during the service before one of them experiences an unsettling beatdown from her irate father moments later. But as she returns to the gathering hall the next, Gralton is encouraged to keep his efforts going.
"Jimmy's Hall" maintains this trajectory throughout its elegantly subdued narrative. The script, by Paul Laverty, has a straightforward quality that sometimes underserves Gralton's formidable mission to revitalize his old home, but whenever the music fires up and another dance sequence takes shape, "Jimmy's Hall" introduces another surge of energy that permeates the drab surroundings—which, of course, is exactly what Gralton intends to do.
Ward does a fine job of embodying Gralton's constant drive, particularly in a late scene in which he delivers a galvanizing speech to locals in front of the press. But his personality only develops a really engaging dimension during the handful of scenes he shares with local priest (Jim Norton), who expresses constant bafflement over Gralton's ability to energize his followers. Their scenes together, often unfolding in close quarters (including a confession booth) form the heart of the movie as the priest gradually starts to come around; few other developments contain the same gentle portrait of opposing perspectives.
In the aftermath of the movie's first Cannes screening, many journalists made the obvious comparison with "Footloose," in which teen rock lover Kevin Bacon runs up against buttoned-up priest John Lithgow. But the similarities only go surface-deep. Set in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Treaty that divided the nation, "Jimmy's Hall" captures more than simply the early stirrings of a cultural revolution. It situates them in the tense, claustrophobic world where any secular form of expression was an automatic taboo.
More than just a vehicle of liberation, the music and literacy that Gralton brings to his followers predominantly plays like a form of activism: It gives Gralton credit for spreading his message and celebrates his drive in a larger sense. That's always been the motivating force behind Loach's best work, and while "Jimmy's Hall" doesn't rank that high, it offers a smaller dose of the same talent. The movie's chief triumph is that it manages to salute Gralton's efforts by resurrecting them.
"Jimmy's Hall" premiered this week at the Cannes Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release it later this year.