Ken Loach Gets 'Footloose' in New Film 'Jimmy's Hall'

Based on the true story of a town where dancing and music is forbidden, this engaging movie is not one of the director's best.

Jimmy’s Hall Directed by Ken Loach; written by Paul Laverty; with Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Andrew Scott, Jim Norton, Brian F. O’Byrne, Aileen Henry

“It’s the devil’s music!” declares the parish priest about the American jazz played at Jimmy’s Club, where the hero of Ken Loach’s new movie tries to make a fresh start in his old hometown. What sounds like a variation on “Footloose” – the 1984 movie (remade in 2011), also based on a true story, about a small town where music and dancing are forbidden – is, in fact, something quite different. This is a Ken Loach film, and Loach has a message that goes beyond the conflict between lovers of popular movies and their opponents.

I have had respect for Loach’s work ever since I watched his 1966 made-for-television film “Cathy Come Home,” one of the most influential dramas in the history of British television, as well as his first feature, the 1967 “Poor Cow.” I admire the resolute way in which the 78-year-old director has always followed his own path; there were years when Loach was almost the only filmmaker to continue the legacy of realist filmmaking, a legacy he filled with a radical political vision that has changed little since his early work. Loach has also always known how to combine drama and humor, often with poignant results, in such fine films as “Kes,” “Raining Stones” and “My Name is Joe.”

In 2002, however, Loach made his last great film, “Sweet Sixteen”; two years later he followed it up with the amiable romantic comedy “Ae Fond Kiss…”, and since then, from my perspective, he has not been able to live up to his own past achievements. His skill as a 
director is still evident in his recent pictures, such as “Looking for Eric” and “The Angels’ Share,” and he remains an accurate chronicler of the human, social and cultural reality in which his stories are set. But his work in the last decade has been minor, never thrilling, despite some excellent scenes in every picture.

One of the paradoxes of Loach’s career is that a dozen of his films have competed at the Cannes Film Festival and most of them picked up an award of some kind, but he only won the Palme d’Or once, for his 2006 “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” – a rather prim and proper, occasionally impressive period drama set during the Irish civil war in the early 1900s. This was the farthest Loach has ever gone back in history, and the movie was somehow conservative, even old-fashioned. Now he has made another historical picture, which once again competed at Cannes; uncharacteristically, Loach went home this time empty-handed.

Written by Paul Laverty, Loach’s regular collaborator since the mid-1990s, “Jimmy’s Hall” is set about a decade later than “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.” With one significant fictionalized addition, it tells the story of James Gralton (Barry Ward), who in 1909 emigrated from Ireland to the United States, went back to Ireland to fight for its independence, returned to America and then once again traveled to Ireland in 1932 to help his mother (Aileen Henry) run the family farm following the death of his brother.

Before leaving for America, Gralton used to run a dance club that also offered classes in art, music, literature and sports. When he returns, local youths ask him to reopen the abandoned club, and Gralton agrees. He is a man who cares about his community, and that’s where his problems begin.

Gralton’s troubles come from two different sources: the local rich man (Brian F. O’Byrne) and the parish priest (Jim Norton). They are against the club not only because it exposes the locals to American music and other symptoms of modernity, but because activity at the club eventually leads to political awareness and even protest against the state-led 
reform that is costing local farmers their land.

In the meantime – and this is the added fictional bit – Gralton also rekindles an old romance with Una (Simone Kirby), his former sweetheart, who was unable to go with him to America and has since married someone else.

I prefer Ken Loach’s films, even his weaker ones, when they deal with the present or the near past, rather than turn to period drama. His movies about contemporary life have focus and sharpness to them, but these give way in “Jimmy’s Hall” to a traditionalism that exposes its conservatism.

It’s hard to find serious fault with Loach’s new film: the plot is engaging, some of the characters are superbly crafted and performed, and there are a number of beautiful scenes – but even these seem as though they were made by a director who knows the components of his own art and succumbs to them, not one whose best works have always gone beyond mere skill and 
correctness.

“Jimmy’s Hall” is a well-intentioned film with a clear message, but it does not have much depth; its first aim is to tell a story, and only then does it strive for anything beyond that. The story itself is poignant and dismal – any article about James Gralton opens by noting that he is the only Irishman ever to be deported from his homeland to America as a so-called foreigner – but the emotion it evokes is muted.

On its most significant level, “Jimmy’s Hall” deals with the difficulties of a country that has just won its own independence and is struggling to combine its own ideological factions; the ways in which this state comports itself reveals its internal fractures and the enduring scars of its battle for freedom. That theme is still relevant today, and the main flaw of “Jimmy’s Hall” is that it fails to make that relevance clear.

Loach’s movie is not one to be dismissed; it is as wise and honest as any of his films. But as a work of filmmaking, it is not particularly interesting, and certainly adds nothing of significance to the rich oeuvre of this important artist.