Director: Ken Loach
Cast: Dave Turner, Ebla Mari, Claire Rodgerson, Trevor Fox
Release: 29th September 2023
Ken Loach has been one of British film’s mainstays since his first feature film, Poor Cow, in 1967, and the widely acclaimed Kes, which followed in 1969, is still regarded as one of the finest British films of all time. His influence is far-ranging, with continued acclaim and success well into his 80s, winning the Palme d’Or and BAFTA for Best British Film for I, Daniel Blake. His latest film, The Old Oak, set to be his last, is another piece on British society, tackling the state of the economy in Northern Britain and the Syrian refugee crisis.
The film’s first shots are recordings of a group of refugees arriving in a small town in County Durham in 2016, being heckled off the bus and one having her prized camera smashed. It instantly sets the tone and shows that the locals are hostile.
The Old Oak is a local pub run by TJ (Dave Turner), a man who has been through the wringer with the pub and his dog, the last things he has to cling to, divorced and with a son who no longer speaks to him. Despite the hardships life has thrown at him, TJ is one of the few locals to show compassion to the refugees, with a small group of others checking in on them and making them feel more at home, striking up a friendship with Yara, helping fix her camera.
This is very much at odds with the regulars at his pub, who want nothing to do with it and don’t think TJ should either. While showing the xenophobia of the community, Loach offers the deprivation the once prosperous area has endured, choosing to set it in 2016, clearly meant to reference the Brexit referendum. If it is hard to watch, it shows people experiencing poverty of the human spirit; in the 2nd half of the film, the town bands together to provide food and companionship for one another, making The Old Oak a beacon of light in a dark time.
The relationship between TJ and Yara is the glue that binds the film together as two people worlds apart find much in common and appreciate each other’s worldview, learning from one another. There is a moving sequence where the pair visit Durham Cathedral, again offering hope where, earlier in the film, it doesn’t seem like there is much to be found.
As a director, Loach still has much to say, and showing a positive side to the area is a welcome decision. If indeed this is his final film, he has gone out on a high note, showing all that he has come to contribute to British cinema since 1967.
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