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Barry Ward as James Gralton is a rakishly likeable hero in a political film with music, dancing, romance and slapstick cop chases.

Joss Barratt/Sony Pictures Classics

2.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Paul Laverty
Directed by
Ken Loach
Starring
Barry Ward, Jim Norton, Simone Kirby
Classification
PG
Country
USA
Language
English

The first item on any Irish agenda is a schism, goes an old joke, which is pertinent to Jimmy's Hall, the latest film from 79-year-old director Ken Loach. Loach, the last of the major filmmakers from the English socialist realist era of the 1960s, is definitely a man with an agenda. Here the schism is between capitalist preaching and Communist dancing.

Jimmy's Hall was inspired by the true story of James Gralton, an Irishman who held double citizenship, but was deported to the United States for his Communist activities. Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty clearly intend to harness their political message to a good old-fashioned inspirational entertainment about poor folk finding the power of the rich and self-righteous. On the surface, it's Footloose with an Irish lilt. There's music, dancing, romance and slapstick cop chases, a rakishly likeable hero (Barry Ward) and a wily villain in the local parish priest.

The film begins with a montage of black-and-white Depression-era New York, which transforms to a verdant glow as Jimmy, after a decade away following the Irish civil war, returns to his County Leitrim home. Almost immediately, the local teens urge him to reopen the community dance hall ("We want to dance!").

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After entering the building, and experiencing a 10-minute flashback of the good old days, he decides to help them out again. Carpenters and painters magically converge and put things shipshape. Jimmy shows the kids a few soft-shoe moves and soon the local musicians have somehow emerged as a hot jazz ensemble. The dancing is followed by boxing lessons and poetry appreciation classes. And Jimmy strikes sparks with his old flame, the now-married Oonagh (Simone Kirby).

Barely has the fun begun though, when the local power brokers, the "masters and the pastors" step in. The gun-wielding landowners, represented by the one-dimensional villain (Brian F. O'Byrne), who actually has a whip and a mustache. Much more complex is the silky-voiced Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), who claims to recognize in Jimmy's dance-hall socialism a force comparable to the early Christian martyrs. He uses his pulpit to denounce the primitive "pelvic thrusting" and other foreign enthusiasms, along with godless atheism. It is perhaps indicative of Loach's sympathy for dramatic sermonizing that his most vibrant character here is a preacher, and the key scenes between Jimmy and Father Sheridan sound like transcripts from debating society records.

As dramatically stilted as Jimmy's Hall is, it has an undeniably appealing integrity, from the old-fashioned craft of the filming and editing, to the detailed recreation of a world of more than 80 years ago and the refreshingly unconventional faces in the group scenes. There's also just the improbable audacity of the project: Who else is trying to make a popular film about a working-class heroes these days?

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