The Old Oak

Peter W Sheehan 28 November 2023

This multinational production tells of a mining village in Northeast England that is facing closure, and the conflicts surrounding townspeople’s reaction to Syrian refugees arriving in their town.

THE OLD OAK. Starring: Ebla Mari, Dave Turner, Claire Rodgerson and Trevor Fox. Directed by Ken Loach. Rated MA 15+. Restricted. (Strong coarse language ). 113 min.

The film is a co-production between the UK, France and Belgium. It is said to be the last film of British film director, Ken Loach, who is especially well known for his two Palme d’Or winning movies The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), and I, Daniel Blake (2016). Loach’s long-time collaborator, Paul Laverty wrote the screenplay for the film.

Turner plays TJ Ballantyne, who is the landlord of ‘The Old Oak’, the town’s one remaining pub. He is struggling to hold onto a public space that is suited to people needing to congregate together. Ballantyne is divorced and depressed; he has a son who won’t talk to him, and he has attempted suicide. Tensions surface when a busload of tired and frightened Syrian refugees, who are seeking asylum, arrives in town. The refugees are desperately in need of understanding and support. Tensions increase when Ballantyne strikes up a friendship with Yara, one of the refugees (Mari). His gentle friendship with Yara is misinterpreted by some of the townspeople, and the Old Oak becomes a pub where racism rears its ugly head.

The town clings precariously to its past. People in the town are leaving as the mines are shut down. “The Old Oak” is the last remaining pub; and resentment of the immigrants is rife. The Syrian refugees are treated appallingly by some of the residents. Many of the townspeople feel their lives are being destroyed by what is happening around them – they feel deserted both by government and the mining industry that employed them.

This is an immensely compassionate film that is respectful of wildly different cultural beliefs and attitudes. Its scenarios are entirely naturalistic, and the desire to create and reinforce viable communities wanting to survive brings the refugees and townspeople ultimately together. Loach treats both communities sympathetically, and Yara and Ballantyne, who are traumatised in different ways, illustrate his intent. The film makes a clear plea for open-hearted compassion and Christian understanding. Loach’s direction is astute and probing, and Laverty’s story-telling is powerful and emotional. Loach deals with poverty, isolation and racial prejudice at the same time that he points optimistically towards unity, strength and togetherness. His world is stark, but it is one where love and understanding triumph over hate and ignorance.

The film is not Loach at his best, but it is a good movie guided impressively by a director known to be especially concerned with the morality of human attitudes and behaviour, and it is a very worthy one to share. The film is upsetting, moving, incredibly uplifting, and probably Loach’s final look at working-class despair.

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