Jimmy Gralton is not a name you’ve likely heard before.
A modest Irish revolutionary, Gralton has the dubious distinction of being the only native to ever be deported from Ireland. On top of leading a communist group in the provincial county of Leitrim in the 1930s, he incited fear in the ruling classes by running what they viewed as a particularly mutinous establishment: A dance hall.
The history books may have yet to give his story a comprehensive treatment, but in “Jimmy’s Hall,” director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty attempt to create a narrative “inspired by the life and times” of this unique man during a period when modernity was knocking violently against the pillars of the establishment.
It’s neither a biopic nor a history lesson, but the restrained and elegant “Jimmy’s Hall” is an evocative story of common people finding hope in a life with little, told with wit and wistfulness.
Loach’s film opens with stock footage of New York at the time — where jazz, industry and skyscrapers abound in a vibrant and changing world — before jumping across the Atlantic to Leitrim, a bucolic and backward farming town.
Some brief subtitles add context to the 1932 Irish scene. This is a people still reeling from the Irish Civil War 10 years prior. Though the conflict has ended, the divisions run deep as those on both sides of the dispute attempt to live in tenuous peace.
Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) has just returned to his hometown after a decade in New York. He’s there to help his ailing mother (Aileen Henry) with her farm, but there’s a tension to his arrival. Many onlookers wonder whether to believe he’s just returned to lead a quiet life.
It’s not until some local teens accost him in the street that we begin to understand Jimmy’s provocative past. They beg him to reopen the dance hall, having only heard stories of the place.
The hall, we discover in a series of rosy-colored flashbacks, was hand built by a group of progressives as a community center for ideas. There, they taught lessons in music, dance, singing, literature and painting, they held parties, and they basked in a safe respite from the clergy and the law.
Violent threats forced the hall to close and Jimmy Gralton to flee years ago. The wounds are still raw, but he and his original crew, including lost love Oonagh (Simone Kirby), decide to try it once more.
You don’t need a priest telling his parish to fear the “Los Angeles-ization” of their culture, or that they must choose between Jesus Christ and Jimmy Gralton’s Hall to know that this isn’t going to end well. And yet as things devolve, the story becomes much more interesting.
The script allows all sides their own perspective in the debate, too. Instead of making them evil caricatures, some of the more fascinating intellectual debates are between two priests, Father Sheridan (Jim Norton) and Father Seamus (Andrew Scott).
Loach, who won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2006 for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” (which functions almost like a companion piece to this film), has given “Jimmy’s Hall” a truly timeless feel with an easy, classical structure and aesthetic and some truly moving performances from Ward, Kirby and Norton in particular.
While this deeply romanticized and fictionalized account of a little-known underdog might not serve you in any trivia capacities, it’s also a worthy and loving story of humanity in the face of oppression.
“Jimmy’s Hall,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language and a scene of violence.” Running time: 106 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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