As political filmmakers go, Ken Loach makes the admirably committed John Sayles look like a tenderfoot. Now in his sixth decade of filmmaking, the British director shows no signs of softening his stance, even amid recent rumors of a possible retirement.
A dedicated social-concern standard-bearer in his films and a strident activist in his life, Loach is capable of balancing his passions when he’s on his game (see “My Name Is Joe” and “Sweet Sixteen,” for instance). When he’s not, the films can get talky and obvious — and alas, “Jimmy’s Hall” finds Loach working with stilted material.
Loach and his frequent screenwriter Paul Laverty return to Ireland, the setting for their beautiful “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” (2006). This early-1930s tale is based on the true story of Jimmy Gralton (played by Barry Ward), a communist and activist who enrages the authorities by building a local hall where classes are taught by day and dances are held by night.
Reviewers are fond of finding a hint of “Footloose” here, but there’s also a nod to John Ford’s classic “The Quiet Man”: A fellow comes to Ireland after years in America, seeking peace and his roots, but gets dragged into the politics of the scene.
In fact, the two best characters of the movie channel the Ford spirit. Jimmy’s mother (Aileen Henry) is cut from the peat of the land, a living embodiment of Irish feeling for home. And the parish priest, Father Sheridan (the superb Jim Norton), though on the wrong side of history, makes his case with such clear-eyed confidence that he overwhelms the nominal hero at times.
Part of that has to do with the handsome, stiff Ward, but as a character, Gralton is vaguely conceived.
The movie’s got its share of fictionalized additions, including Oonagh (Simone Kirby), who loved Jimmy a decade ago but married somebody else in the interim. Loach strains to give this lost romance some wistful resonance, but the idea feels like a screenwriter’s stock situation.
The movie looks good, and it comes to life any time music is playing in the hall. The tensions in Ireland after independence are fascinating but complicated, and Loach and Laverty haven’t found a way to bundle those tensions into a movie that breathes on its own.
“Jimmy’s Hall” (2½ stars)
The veteran political filmmaker Ken Loach has a mediocre effort here, in a story about real-life Irish activist Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward), who returns to his roots in the early 1930s and starts trouble by opening a public hall. The movie looks great (and the Irish music is a plus), but the situation and characters are too stilted to really breathe on their own.
Rating: PG-13, for violence
Showing: Sundance Cinemas Seattle