Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 109 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. Some language; an off-limits romance between two adults, one of whom is married; and a serious beating by a father to his daughter. Also some talk about free will vs. religious faith.
‘Jimmy’s Hall’ tries to be more than an Irish version of ‘Footloose,’ but the historically based drama flattens too many serious issues to be much of anything else.
By Roxana Hadadi
The “Footloose” formula works as long as there are tyrannical governments or systems trying to stifle individual rights. The remake of “Footloose” kept that structure; the Iran-set “Desert Dancer” also focused on that religious government’s banning of dance; and now “Jiimmy’s Hall” considers that same struggle in 1930s Ireland. How “Jimmy’s Hall” flattens the life of Irish activist Jimmy Gralton into a “let them dance!” standoff makes the film more accessible for teenagers, but that streamlining also makes the story less compelling overall.
Based on the life of Gralton, the first and only person to have been deported from his native Ireland, “Jimmy’s Hall” focuses mainly on the struggle between conservative religion and youthful individualism. After leaving the Irish Civil War for New York City, where he lived during the 1920s and became an American citizen, Gralton (Barry Ward) returns to Ireland in 1932 to help his mother take care of the family farm. It’s Depression time, and everyone is living rough. The few things that people cling to are their national pride and their religion, and while Gralton is adamant about the former, he’s not so sold on the latter—and everyone knows it.
Neighbors view him warily and curiously, and it’s soon revealed why: Before leaving for the United States, Gralton had built a hall on his land—the titular “Jimmy’s hall”—which was basically a community center where people discussed art, literature, and history; read poetry; sparred in boxing matches; reveled in traditional Irish culture; and often danced. (In reality, this endeavor was mostly fueled by Gralton’s real-life Marxism, which is glossed over in the film.) All of this was viewed negatively by the conservative church, and when Gralton returns, parish priest Father Sheridan (Jim Norton, of “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”) raises his guard.
In real life, the main issue between Gralton and the church was his communism; here, it’s more about him offering the townsfolk “pleasure,” which Sheridan thinks is wanton and sinful. Other church leaders think Sheridan should back off, but he won’t, railing at the pulpit against jazz music and the “the Los Angelization of our culture.” Yet the kids just want to dance—and when people start getting hurt, the Gralton vs. Sheridan rivalry reaches a fever pitch.
The film has a hard time characterizing Gralton without his Marxism, so instead the character is saddled with a (not based in reality) romance that can’t be, a woman whom he loved who married another man when he left Ireland. Their unrequited affair is meant to add tension and drive to Gralton, and while a scene of Gralton and Oonagh (Simone Kirby, of “Season of the Witch”) silently dancing together in the hall is moving, otherwise the relationship is too chaste to have any impact. There are a lot of melodramatic glances, but that’s about it.
The real political meat of the film is how Gralton provided a meeting place for activists angry with how wealthy landowners were evicting tenants at will, therefore irritating the establishment, but that takes a backseat to the “pleasure”-related plot. Perhaps that’s better for younger audiences, who probably don’t care about property rights and will instead get drawn into the our-parents-just-don’t-understand material instead. But it would be worthwhile to have discussions after viewing “Jimmy’s Hall” together about what a community space can provide for its citizens; whether collaboration or confrontation is more worthwhile for changing unfair power structures; and how the teens who viewed the film would have acted if they lived within that time and place.
At one point in “Jimmy’s Hall,” a younger priest tells Sheridan, “Repression breeds belligerence.” While the movie relies too much on the “Footloose” formula, that statement could inspire a number of conversations with young viewers that will resonate with them as much as the numerous dance scenes … hopefully.
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