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Religion and culture clash in ambiguous 'Jimmy's Hall'
Simone Kirby as Oonagh and Barry Ward as Jimmy in "Jimmy's Hall." - photo by Josh Terry
"Jimmy's Hall" may be set in 1932, but there's no way to review this kind of film without considering it in a modern context. And as the latest in a long line of films "inspired by" a true story, it's a challenge for viewers to discern between truth and the filmmakers perspective.

The title refers to Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward), an eclectic soul who has just returned to his hometown in Ireland after spending a decade in New York City. The hall is a cultural center built to accommodate dances, art classes and other seemingly innocent ventures.

Jimmy opened the hall before leaving for New York, and in the aftermath of the Irish Civil War, it became a firebrand of contention between the local Catholic clergy and many of the locals. Things eventually got so bad that Jimmy had to flee the country to avoid arrest. And while he was gone experiencing the Roaring 20s and the outbreak of the Great Depression, his hall drifted into disrepair.

But as "Jimmy's Hall" opens, Jimmy is convinced to reopen the popular venue, only to find that the resistance he fled long ago is alive and well.

It's hard to understand why anyone would be so enraged over a local community center, but Father Sheridan (Jim Norton) sees the place as the virtual gates of hell itself. Aside from hosting lewd and immoral dancing, Sheridan believes the hall is a haven for communists and their sympathizers; a launching pad for evil propaganda.

On the surface, "Jimmy's Hall" feels like a showdown between religious conservatives and culture-conscious progressives. And in that sense, it might be easy to accept the film as a modern critique of similar tensions. But intentionally or not, "Jimmy's Hall" rebuts that narrow narrative.

For one, the voices of warning who reference Stalin and the dangers of communism have a point, considering the history that is to come. But it's more interesting to consider this: Its the religious conservatives who are leveling threats of boycotts, evictions and warnings about the "right side of history" in Jimmys Hall, but it's people of faith who often face those tactics today.

There's more than a little "Footloose" in "Jimmy's Hall," albeit without quite the same happy, Kenny Loggins backbeat. It's easy to see Jimmy walking in Kevin Bacon's shoes as a 1930's equivalent of Ren McCormack and Sheridan as John Lithgow's the Rev. Moore.

But the key difference is that while "Footloose" sympathized with the Rev. Moore's concerns, "Jimmy's Hall" is more reluctant to consider Father Sheridan as anything less than a zealot. You could argue that this is because "Jimmy's Hall" is telling a true story, but that depends on how much trust you put in the phrase "inspired by" that leads the opening credits.

For his part, Ward gives a sympathetic performance. His Jimmy is more of a leader by example, soft-spoken and laid back, especially in contrast to Norton's boiling and calculating interpretation of Father Sheridan.

In the end, it's easy to accept him as a hero in "Jimmy's Hall," but the movie becomes more problematic when we try to discern how director Ken Loach wants us to apply its lessons to our day.

"Jimmy's Hall" is rated PG-13 for profanity and violence, but sensitive viewers should understand that the rating comes under the assumption that applying a heavy Irish accent to the frequently used F-word negates its impact.