The force remains strong in Ken Loach, aged 86 and delivering a film as fired up and human as any you’ll see this year. The conclusion of a loose trilogy of dramas set in England’s North East that also takes in the I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You, and likely to be his final film, it’s a fitting goodbye for this most empathetic chronicler of British society.
If Kenergy still blazes from The Old Oak, the filmmaker certainly has no less material to fill his kitchen sink these days than when he kicked off his career with Poor Cow 56 years ago.
Facing new challenges is TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner), the landlord of a struggling pub in an ex-mining town. Photos of the 1984 Miners’ strike line the walls, reminders both of a proud local history and jobs that have never been replaced. Money is tight. A once tight-knit community has become prime UKIP turf.
The arrival of a coachload of Syrian refugees, then, feels like another affront for TJ’s regulars. The film’s setting – 2016 – is significant. This is the year Britain opened its door, begrudgingly, to migrants from war-torn Syria. For the inhabitants of County Durham, they may as well have come from the moon.
As is his MO, Loach assembles a cast of inexperienced actors who bring naturalism to their characters. Turner imbues his lonely landlord with a doughty kindness and a gathering sense of protectiveness over the new arrivals. He opens his heart to Yara (newcomer Ebla Mari is vibrant), a twentysomething Syrian photographer whose father is missing, presumed murdered, back home.
If The Old Oak initially feels incurious about the inner lives of its small migrant community, they slowly come into sharper focus. One scene has the locals gathering for a slideshow of Yara’s monochrome snaps of the town, accompanied on the oud, as Loach shows us them seeing themselves through fresh eyes. It’s a grace note that expresses the power of cultural connection.
It’s a fitting goodbye for this most empathetic chronicler of British society
Loach’s long-time screenwriter Paul Laverty threads it altogether via an overarching drama about The Old Oak’s back room. TJ’s grumbling regulars locals, spearheaded by his increasingly xenophobic old friend Charlie (Trevor Fox), are eager to use it for a UKIP-y meeting; TJ wants to help local volunteer Tania (Debbie Honeywood) turn it into a dining room where the two communities can come together. Like the saloon in a western, it becomes a place of showdown.
Some of that dialogue feels soapy – there’s a scene where someone actually says: ‘Leave it Gary, he’s not worth it’ – but The Old Oak’s sincerity makes its flaws easy to forgive. Loach and his long-time screenwriter Laverty are tackling realities that clearly pain them. How did a good man like Charlie become an angry xenophobe? There are no easy answers here.
If this is the end of the road for a British filmmaking great, it’s a thoughtful, heart-filled finale. British cinema’s old oak still stands tall.
The Old Oak premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.