We’re led to believe that The Old Oak will be Ken Loach’s final film, and if so, the veteran director leave behind a remarkable career as a film-maker, with 1966’s Cathy Come Home establishing Loach on his path as a fearless cinematic warrior with his sights invariably set on laying bare the kind of social injustice that often seems ingrained in British society today. That mission has fallen in and out of favour with a fickle media over the years, but Loach’s path remains steadfast and true, even if he seems to be more appreciated aboard than at home, where his films are sometimes celebrated, and sometimes unjustifiably ignored.
Despite, or perhaps because of a hot topic subject matter, The Old Oak didn’t initially enjoy the kind of wave of public interest that greeted My Name is Joe or I, Daniel Blake, but it still packs a punch. The setting is the North of England 2016, neatly avoiding any temptation to discuss the role of Brexit in the precipitous decline of the UK. A group of Syrian refugees arrive in County Durham and immediately face anger from the locals. As they get off the bus, photographer Yara (Ebla Mari) has her camera pointlessly smashed by a yob in a Newcastle football shirt, and when she complains, she’s told to ‘wind your neck in’. This kind of act of emotional violence outlines a specific problem; times are tough, someone has to be blamed, and those least likely to fight back are easy targets.
Paul Laverty’s scripts always contain such agonising delineation of painful injustice; the problem is how to construct an upbeat yet neither false nor sentimental narrative to serve the real issues involved. Yara falls in with TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner), the owner of local public house The Old Oak, and his old school regulars are annoyed when he grants the Syrians use of a back-room in the pub to ‘sit together and eat together’. Yara and TJ share an understanding of what it is to be treated unfairly, of ‘solidarity, not charity’ but TJ is left in a precarious position, unable to afford public liability insurance while his business leaves him ‘hanging on by his fingertips’; not for the first time in Loach’s work, we see the fractured connection between economics and morality exposed.
Loach and Laverty always do their research; a real-estate grunt who fobs TJ off with a comment about ‘commercially sensitive information’ is treated with appropriate distain, while the description of the Syrians as ‘ragheads’ by the pub regulars is blunt and of the moment. Yara’s view of Durham Cathedral is a powerful, transcendent moment here; the cruel murder of TJ’s dog feels like a little too much to bear. But such extreme narrative measures are justified; while The Old Oak skillfully updates Loach’s storied style to an era of ipads and social media, there’s little sign of any social improvement in today’s Britain, nor are there indications of any other film-makers getting the chance to continue in Loach and Laverty’s worthy causes.Turner and Mari both make excellent contribitions here, making sure that TJ and Yara feels like three dimensional characters, not symbols.
Serious cinema has struggled to connect in the post-pandemic era, with the focus on young people and escapism, but immigration issues are always important. One hopes that The Old Oak has some way to go in home entertainment in terms of updating audiences about the perilous state of the UK as it struggles to recover from the Brexit/Johnson con-job that leaves the country on the cusp of collapse, revealing immigration policy mastermind Nigel Farage as the attention-seeking single-use celebrity that he always was. If serious dramas like The Old Oak got a percentage of the media attention stooges like Farage get, we’d all be living in a better world, and that revolution starts here.
Thanls to StudioCanal for access. COMING TO HOME PREMIERE ON 13TH NOVEMBER 2023
THE OLD OAK will be available on digital download and available to buy on Blu-ray and DVD from 15th December.