The Old Oak Review

Thursday 12 October 2023

Plot: The future for the last remaining pub, The Old Oak, in a village of Northeast England, where people are leaving the land as the mines are closed. Houses are cheap and available, thus making it an ideal location for Syrian refugees. 

Film: The Old Oak

Director: Ken Loach

Writer: Paul Laverty

Starring: Dave Turner, Debbie Honeywood, Trevor Fox

The Old Oak follows the journey of a village in Northeast England, which has been struggling for last forty-something years since the closure of local mines, as it becomes the home to a community of Syrian refugees, much to the protest of some of the locals. Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake) has once again created an emotionally charged and hard hitting societal commentary, while using real people rather than famous faces to tell this story. 

Pub landlord, TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner), has found himself divorced and battling depression, estranged from his adult son and trying to keep his business from going under as he’s unable to sell and get away. "The Old Oak" serves as his sanctuary—a pub in a deprived former mining town. Unfortunately, it's fallen into disrepair. His regular patrons are consumed by anger, their frustration fuelled by plummeting house prices and resentment towards immigrants. Nearby properties are being snapped up by real estate companies, then exploited through excessive rents, effectively erasing the retirement security they once promised and siphoning the community's value.

The situation takes a more tense turn when a busload of Syrian refugees arrives in town. TJ faces a pivotal choice: the enraged locals implore him to reopen the pub's long-unused back room as a space to air their grievances, but he hesitates. He inadvertently allows the room to host a community supper, bringing together locals and Syrians, including Yara (Ebla Mari), a young Syrian woman seeking news about her imprisoned father. TJ's connection with Yara sparks whispers among some patrons, but it develops into a tender friendship. One poignant moment unfolds when he takes her to Durham Cathedral, where she is deeply moved by the choir and the ancient structure. Contemplating her inability to revisit the Roman-built temples at Palmyra, destroyed by ISIS, she reflects on the power of empathy and solidarity between British citizens and immigrants.

Tragedy sees the community come together in the sort of way only hard times can unite, northerners are often seen as hardy people but The Old Oak does an excellent job at showing just how accepting they can be too.

Ken Loach continues to be a fervent advocate for social realism. He employs a style of unadorned, unironic political outrage, shot by Robbie Ryan with a simple, naturalistic approach, featuring first-time and non-professional actors. His filmmaking language remains untainted by the prevailing cynicism of modern cinema. There’s a good chance that this was Ken Loach’s last film, and while I sincerely hope that isn’t the case, what a momentous note to go out on. 

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