Tuesday, April 5, 2016

"Jimmy's Hall": A Familiar Story Told Poorly

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Set in Ireland in 1933, Jimmy’s Hall is centered on a local man, Jimmy Gralton, who builds a community center for his town that encourages the arts and education, but most notably is a place for young people to dance to the latest jazz hits.  This raises the ire of the Catholic Church, which notably wants to keep a firm grasp on the social influences its flock is subjected to.  So they seek to shame the participants of these gatherings and try to force Jimmy to dismantle the community center.  I got about thirty minutes into Jimmy’s Hall before it finally dawned on me.  This movie is basically Footloose.

Ostensibly, the film is based on an actual historical event, as Jimmy Gralton was actually a communist proselytizer whom the Catholic-controlled Irish government eventually had deported for his views.  However, at least the first half of the film is centered entirely on a farcically portrayed conflict between Gralton and the local pastor, Father Sheridan.  Gralton only wants to provide a place for local youth to spend time and receive education in a culture other than their own while having a bit of fun, and Sheridan is opposed to this because… well, I suppose because the church frowns upon such things as pleasure and education.  There is a surprising lack of nuance to the portrayal of both the sympathetic Gralton and the antagonistic Sheridan, and the degree to which the film takes itself so seriously does not help matters.  At least in Footloose there is a certain degree of self-awareness to how ridiculous the premise and proceedings are; here, the dead-serious portrayal of Gralton’s road to exile is hammered into a bizarre bit of formula writing.

This does become alleviated somewhat by the film’s second half, as Gralton’s communist political views become more apparent in speeches and conversations that he has with the denizens of his community center.  This in turn seems to give the government an excuse to try and have him removed from the country, since this was during the height of the Red Scare.  However, this feels like too little too late from the film, particularly with respect to the fact that the real life Jimmy Gralton built the hall for partially political reasons right from the start.  It is almost as if in the screenwriting process the writer realized halfway the amount to which he was plagiarizing an 80’s pop culture film and looked to Wikipedia for his differentiating inspiration.

On a purely technical level, Jimmy’s Hall isn’t really a bad film.  Its characters are relatable and when the plot finally steps beyond its formula hackery it does a pretty decent job of portraying an ugly chapter in Irish history, showing a scared and defiant Jimmy on the run after a violent attack on his dance hall.  But all in all, this film is a bizarre combination of tropes that don’t quite gel with one another.  There are much better films about the oppression of communists and the Catholic-Protestant divide in Ireland, and if you are looking for a movie about dancing kids, at least Footloose doesn’t try to take itself so damn seriously.  Jimmy’s Hall is too much of a mess to recommend.

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