British master of socialist realism Ken Loach has always had to cope with being thought of as an activist who makes movies, rather than an artistic filmmaker with a leftist political bent. With "Jimmy's Hall," one could almost imagine him taking the bet that he could make a political film as entertaining and accessible as any other. Unfortunately, for this viewer, the "other" that kept coming to mind was "Footloose," so it's not quite clear Loach actually did what he set out to do.
What he did was make an entertaining period piece -- the year is 1932 -- about homecoming, oppression and the liberating nature of idealism and creative expression. Such are the spirited ideas that James Gralton (Barry Ward) hopes to instill in the people of County Leitrim, who flock to the dancehall he reopens after a 10-year forced visit to America, having been deported for running a similar establishment back when Ireland was still in the grips of its Civil War. The Church -- embodied by pulpit-polluting Father Sheridan (Jim Norton) -- is opposed to any such nonsense and sets out to put a stop to it, in the company of reactionary elements left over from the war.
Gralton's purpose isn't just to create a place for music and dancing -- although he's brought back rhythms and dance steps from black America which set the locals on fire. He's intent on creating a "safe space" where underprivileged Irish can teach, study, and better their minds, all of which Sheridan opposes, comparing the goings-on at Gralton's to Stalinist purges and paganism. Jimmy, meanwhile, is engaged in a romantic pas de deux with the lovely Oonagh (Simone Kirby), which lends the film a gentle, affectionate air -- but really, so do its politics, which are calculated to incite indignation and take shots at easy targets.
"Jimmy's Hall," based on the fact-based play by Donal O'Kelly and scripted by longtime Loach collaborator Paul Laverty, is an emotional film, but not much of an effort for its director.
PLOT In the early '30s, a revolutionary-minded Irishman comes home and opens a community dance hall, while the wounds of civil war are still fresh. RATED PG-13 (language, violence)
CAST Barry Ward, Jim Norton, Simone Kirby
PLAYING AT Roslyn Cinemas, Malverne Cinema 4
BOTTOM LINE Sentimental, and a bit of an easy A for Ken Loach.