What could well be Ken Loach’s final film has as much fire and fury as his debut Poor Cow did in 1967, if we discount his pioneering TV work in the run-up. The visual style hasn’t changed a great deal in the years since, but that’s because the British movie veteran, soon to turn 87, isn’t much fussed about surfaces, it’s the inner lives of his characters that he wants to capture. In that respect, The Old Oak would make a fitting swansong, capping the recent North-East trilogy with a vital film that is clearly the work of the team behind previous Cannes Competition hits I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You.
The setting is Easington, County Durham, and the year is 2016. Curiously, the Brexit Referendum is never mentioned, but the sentiments that fueled the pro-Leave movement certainly are. It opens with a coach party of Syrian refugees moving into a row of terraced houses in the former mining town, much to the annoyance of the locals. “It’s not fair,” says one, “it’s shit.” “Why didn’t you tell us they were coming?” yells another. A young immigrant, Yara (Elba Mari), arriving with her mother, brother and sisters, documents the protest with her beloved camera, which gets smashed in a scuffle.
Local pub licensee T.J. Ballantyne (Dave Turner) comes to her aid, gallantly offering to fix the broken device and striking up a friendship with the woman, being impressed by her resilience after fleeing a war zone. This does not go down too well with the regulars at his pub The Old Oak, who see the refugees as an insult to their communities and an assault on their values. Surprisingly, Loach and writer Paul Laverty indulge these voices: racism in Easington is not a luxury belief but a reaction to 40 years of decline in post-Thatcherite Britain. The mines have gone, house prices have plummeted, schools have closed, and jobs are in scarce supply (“A whole way of life, just gone forever”). This extraordinarily compassionate film knows that racists and made, not born, or as T.J. puts it more eloquently, “We all look for a scapegoat when life goes to shit.”
The Syrians become something of a lightning rod in the small community, and a line in the sand is drawn when T.J. teams up with Yara and a local charity worker to provide twice-weekly social nights in his back room. “When you eat together, you stick together, says Yara, and T.J., thinking back to the miners’ strike of the mid-1980s, recalls the way the miners’ wives pulled together, serving 500 meals a day to hungry families. The first event is a smash hit, but T.J., like a lot of Loach heroes, is lovable but not lucky, and he is brought swiftly back down to earth when a series of events conspire against him.
Thematically and politically, Loach and Laverty throw everything they can think of at the screen, and it all sticks because it’s all true. After skewering the government’s handling of the health service in I, Daniel Blake, and the fake “free enterprise” of the gig economy in Sorry We Missed You, the pair are taking a sawn-off shotgun to everything that’s left, chiefly the erosion of public spaces and the undermining of community spirit caused almost directly, by the Conservative party’s neoliberal capitalist philosophy. Loach might be the angriest he’s ever been, blaming not just the politicians but even the British people themselves for rolling over for increasingly right-wing, authoritarian regimes (is it Loach talking when T.J. says, “If you accept nothing, you get nothing”?).
Dave Turner is the vessel for most of this, and his performance is terrific, even when the lines he’s speaking sound more like Brechtian agit-prop than the thoughts of a pub landlord. He’s especially moving when recounting his life thus far; “I’ve made so many mistakes,” he says, recalling the wife that left him and the son that blanks him.
Elba Mari makes an interesting counterpoint to his gruff northerner, and there’s a smart subtext beneath the seeming culture clash that goes beyond the usual people-are-people platitudes that come with race-clash dramas. The Old Oak isn’t saying that, it’s a lament to the way the ordinary man has become surplus to requirements in his own world. T.J. puts it one way when he remembers the words of his late father: “If the workers realized the power they had, and had the confidence to use it, they could change the world. But we never did.” Yara puts it another way, when she describes the way the optimism of the Arab Spring gave way to the horrors of civil war: “We tried to build something new, something beautiful. Now look at us — thrown to the wolves.”
In that respect, The Old Oak is not asking us to settle our differences but to accept our similarities in a world being carved up by the wealthy. If this is Loach’s legacy, it’s a good one, and you can sum it up in just three words: strength, solidarity and resistance.
Title: The Old Oak
Festival: Cannes (Competition)
Director: Ken Loach
Screenwriter: Paul Laverty
Cast: Dave Turner, Elba Mari, Trevor Fox
Running time: 1hrs 53mins
Sales agent: StudioCanal