Running Time: 113 mins
UK Distributor: Studiocanal
UK Release Date: 29 September 2023
WHO’S IN THE OLD OAK?
Dave Turner, Ebla Mari, Claire Rodgerson, Trevor Fox, Chris McGlade, Col Tait, Jordan Louis, Chrissie Robinson, Chris Gotts, Jen Patterson, Arthur Oxley, Joe Armstrong, Andy Dawson, Maxie Peters, Debbie Honeywood, Neil Leiper
WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?
Ken Loach (director), Paul Laverty (writer), Rebecca O’Brien (producer), George Fenton (composer), Robbie Ryan (cinematographer), Jonathan Morris (editor)
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
A publican (Turner) forms a close bond with a Syrian refugee (Mari)…
WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE OLD OAK?
Even after nearly sixty years of tapping into every social issue within British society, Ken Loach still has it within him to surprise his audience. On the surface, The Old Oak – the third in his and writer Paul Laverty’s loose trilogy of social strife in the north-east of England, following I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You – seems to be very much within the filmmaker’s safe zone, and for the most part it kind of is. What is unexpected, however, is the sheer emotional force that hits you like a ton of bricks, in a way that very few films, even those by the now 87-year-old director, manage to accomplish.
At least, that’s how it was for me. Consider this your fair warning that the following review is going to be more personal than I usually construct them, because The Old Oak was a genuinely moving experience for me, due to reasons I will get into shortly, and in all honesty, that might cloud over some of my more critical thinking regarding its plot, character, filmmaking et al. So, if you’re looking for someone to fairly critique this film, I might not be the most reliable source this time round – but if you’re curious about what exactly about The Old Oak got me so worked up, then by all means stick around.
The film is set in a small former mining village in Durham, which has since fallen on hard times with properties being sold for far cheaper than their original owners paid for, and locals who have nowhere else to go other than the local pub, The Old Oak. Its owner is a man named TJ Ballentyne (Dave Turner), who possesses a kind heart but tends to silently ignore the hateful rhetoric of his embittered regulars, convinced that the recent arrival of several Syrian refugees is only making their barren community even worse.
Ballentyne soon grows close with one such refugee, aspiring photographer Yara (Ebla Mari), who convinces him to start opening up the pub to the new arrivals and encouraging everyone to socialise and befriend one another in an act of solidarity. Unfortunately, the rampant racism and xenophobia of numerous regular pub-goers, including Ballentyne’s former friend Charlie (Trevor Fox), often gets in the way of their noble cause, to where they start to wonder if they’ll ever manage to make a difference to their rundown village.
Putting aside some of his more questionable far-left political views, I’ve always felt Ken Loach to be a filmmaker with enormous empathy, which he has often used to amplify the voices of the working-class as well as their resounding anger for the austerity that has kept them in place. However, sometimes that can be eclipsed by an overwhelming need to get up on a soapbox and simply preach to the choir, instead of actually focusing on making the story and characters feel more real and empathetic rather than mere mouthpieces for the filmmakers’ politics (a problem that I retrospectively had with Loach’s previous film Sorry We Missed You). Having said that, I found The Old Oak to be a formidable balance of both, with both Loach and Laverty imparting plenty of sensitivity towards their characters, whether they’re sympathetic or not, while dialling down much of the overt grandstanding to allow the emotions and scenarios speak for themselves.
Here, you are given just enough insight into what kind of personal traumas each of the main characters are going through, from Ebla Mari’s Yara and her family experiencing overwhelming uncertainty surrounding the whereabouts of their father back in Syria, to even the racist locals who feel as though they are being pushed out of existence by economic circumstances, for which they have baselessly blamed their foreign new neighbours.
Loach’s realist filmmaking style and Laverty’s fired-up script lends them all a platform on which to speak, even if you unilaterally disagree with what or how they think, in an attempt to explore the rough situation for everyone in this village, who has been forced to make the most of what they’ve been given. Sometimes, the execution can get all too bleak and upsetting (let’s just say, you should never trust the director of Kes with the overall well-being of an adorable on-screen animal), but there is a resounding sense of love and kindness at its centre which can often leave more than a few lumps in your throat, no matter what wing of the political spectrum on which you may stand.
But what caused such an emotional reaction within me wasn’t necessarily the wider themes at play (though don’t get me wrong, they certainly are effective), but a singular scene within the movie where a main character explains in astonishing detail how they once attempted to take their own life. I take no pleasure in sharing with you, dear reader, that I found myself in that very situation a few years ago, as the weight of the pandemic finally began to come down on me. It was a moment in my life where I felt nothing but a mixture of sorrow, anger, and quiet acceptance of an impending exit, all of which are things that are captured so beautifully in this film, through both Laverty’s dialogue and the extraordinarily tender performance of the actor delivering it.
Upon seeing all those feelings that I once felt at this dark point in my life be portrayed up on the screen, with a clear understanding of the mental and emotional toll that an attempted suicide can have on a person, I unexpectedly felt a heavy wave of recognition crash over me; I felt seen, and as though I was, for once, not alone in my despair. It left me a near-total emotional wreck, not just because of how powerfully the film conveys such delicate thoughts of ending one’s life, but also how much Loach and Laverty seem to really understand the mindset in which I, and several other people across the world, have gone through. For that, I thank them dearly for helping me feel seen by the very medium I’ve had a lifelong affinity for.
If this is indeed Loach’s final narrative film – and at 87, he’s more than earned the right to stop – then The Old Oak is a wonderful note to bow out on, with plenty of emotion and empathy to leave anyone with an unexpectedly warm feeling inside.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Old Oak is a wonderfully empathetic drama by director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty, who manage to strike a fine balance between genuine emotion and socialist grandstanding to form a moving, if often overly bleak, portrait of working-class multicultural British life.