Before the Cannes Film Festival, where it made its debut, Ken Loach announced that The Old Oak is to be his final work. This is a shame because we need someone with Loach’s righteous fury to make films about the deplorable treatment of Britain’s often invisible and maligned underclass. He might not be bowing out with a masterpiece, but it is still classic Loach.
The film takes place in the Northeast of England. The year is 2016 – for many, one of the worst years of the millennium, the deaths of David Bowie and George Michael bookending the death of the European dream and the horror show that was Brexit; a pivotal moment that saw an immediately escalation of race-related hate crimes.
The Old Oak of the title is the town’s last pub standing, run by TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner). The mine has long since closed and the population is in decline, leaving plenty of accommodation available to Syrian refugees. Their arrival causes something of an uproar amongst some of the neighbours, but it is not just lazy racists who object.
Loach captures the conflict that can arise when the indigenous population sees the refugees receiving handouts; a group of local boys watching enviously as a young Syrian girl receives a bike. Loach brilliantly portrays the town’s boarded up houses and desolate estates, a grim playground for children with little prospect of a future.
As with many of his previous films, Loach makes use of non-professional actors, with varying success. When the chagrined locals frequenting the pub vent their anger and discuss their plight, they are a collective mouthpiece for Loach’s grievances, all of them unarguably valid yet not always convincingly delivered.
This is not just the fault of the amateur actors: Loach’s long-time collaborator Paul Laverty wrote the screenplay and it’s just a little heavy-handed, with too much repetition. And the young Syrian newcomer Yara (Ebla Mari) has a pretty formidable grasp of English considering she learnt it from aid workers in a refugee camp.
As TJ, Turner is a likeable presence on the screen. Like the protagonists of many a Loach movie, he is seeking redemption for his sins of the past. Mari tackles the arduous script as convincingly as she can, yet her pontificating about the war doesn’t ring true.
The film opens with black and white photographs Yara has taken of her new neighbours. These images, depicting some of the desolation and desperation of the locals and their habitat, are nicely juxtaposed with the black and white pictures hanging in the pub that feature the miners’ strike and the soup kitchens that were set up to feed the community.
The links between the very different conflicts, and the desire to create and reinforce community through food, are what bring the Syrians and their reluctant hosts together. Loach shows the desperation and heartbreak found in many of these homes. Despite the film’s failings, it still tugs on the heartstrings – just a little too forcibly for my taste.
In cinemas from September 29