"Jimmy’s Hall," Ken Loach’s loving dramatization of the life and times of the Irish communist James "Jimmy" Gralton, begins with jumpy black-and-white archival footage of Depression-era New York. The buildings going up, the teeming crowds, the soup kitchen lines.
Cut to the lush green of County Leitrim, and a country road (is there any other kind?) where a gaggle of folk merrily dance a jig.
Well, they’d be merrier if someone would reopen the old dance hall in Effrinagh — a place where people once gathered not just to step out to airs and reels, but to learn crafts, paint pictures, read poetry. It was what we call a community center now, and the community loved it. The church leaders and the landowners (or "the pastors and the masters," as someone calls them)? Not so much.
Down that road comes Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward), returning home from 10 years in the United States, living and working in the big city. He’s asked if he would swing the creaking doors of the hall open again, dust things off, and invite the townspeople in. And he does. But because the talk sometimes turns to politics, to fair wages and saving struggling families from eviction, the local Catholic priest (Jim Norton) and the landed gentry set out to close the place for good.
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The prolific British filmmaker Loach has long been concerned with the struggles of the working class, the underclass, and he makes no bones about who the hero is here — the handsome, soft-spoken Jimmy — and who the villains may be.
But the meetings between the socialist crusader and Father Sheridan aren’t simply canned conversations of good vs. evil, the right and earnest against the powerful and wrong. Loach is better than that, and so are his actors. There’s humanity here, on all sides, and a gentle wisdom beneath the raging rhetoric.
The Irish actor Ward had better watch out. If casting directors stumble on Loach’s new film, the dashing star of "Jimmy’s Hall" might find himself rom-comming his way around Hollywood. The reunion of Jimmy and Oonagh (Simone Kirby), the girl he left behind and who went on to marry another in his stead, is full of ache and regret. When they dance, alone, in Jimmy’s empty hall, the sparks of true love threaten to burn the whole place down.
Review by Steven Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer