The Old Oak Review | Ken Loach Sticks to His Roots

by Andrew Parker

The Old Oak is the latest and possibly final socially conscious drama from esteemed British filmmaker Ken Loach, and if indeed this manages to be his swan song, he’s capping off his career by doing what he does best. Once again examining class divides, prejudices, and social and political inequalities, The Old Oak rounds out a loose trilogy of late career works by Loach, including I, Daniel Blake – a film about a blue collar worker struggling to attain government assistance – and Sorry We Missed You, which looks into a family trying to sustain themselves amid the new gig economy. This time examining the trend of settling foreign refugees into dying communities where real estate has been devalued into nothingness, Loach completes his examination of hot button issues that have existed for decades, but only get worse over time instead of better.

The Old Oak of the film’s title isn’t a tree, but rather a run down pub in a small, Northeastern England town that’s seen better days. Once a thriving mining community, the town has been in economic and social free-fall for the better part of twenty years, with the pub remaining as the only real connection to the past. The Old Oak is run by TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner), a once progressive figure in the labour movement who has grown jaded, complacent, and depressed with how the town has fallen apart.  The film picks up in 2016, as a busload of Syrian refugees are dropped off and settled into their new homes in town. Many of the locals start a racially fuelled uproar over not being consulted, spouting hateful rhetoric and jingoist fears that have taken root since the collapse of the mining economy. Unlike many of the patrons that frequent The Old Oak, TJ still has a charitable side and drive to do some good for the community. His spark of kindness and charity is reignited through a friendship with one of the refugees, a young photographer named Yara (Ebla Mari). Together, with help from other like minded locals willing to donate some time, money, and labour, they seek to turn The Old Oak into a place the dying community can rally around. But some of TJ’s most loyal customers think the pub should be more of a symbol for those who lived there the longest, not as a rallying point for newcomers seen as foreign outsiders.

It makes sense that The Old Oak would be seen by Loach and screenwriting collaborator Paul Laverty as part of a trilogy, since each of the films in the set (and across the filmmaker’s career) follow a similar, familiar formula. Decent, hard working folks already at their breaking point mentally and physically are pushed even further by forces beyond their control and purview. The push creates a tension that will bring out the best in some and the worst in others. Everything gets worse before it gets better, and even when things are looking up, the viewer can keenly sense that another massive setback is lurking just around the corner. In Loach’s vision of the world, anything that can go wrong will undoubtedly do so, and the crux of dramatic catharsis lies in watching what people will do in such situations.

This familiarity means The Old Oak comes with a certain degree of predictability for anyone already up on Loach’s decades long career, but there’s always something to be said about a filmmaker that almost always sticks to their strengths. Loach has a knack for naturalism, both in how he directs his actors to sound as authentic to a region as possible, and in terms of depicting communities where ghosts of better days past remain in plain sight, but deteriorating due to governmental and bureaucratic neglect and rot. He shows an understanding for those he doesn’t agree with and those who seek to impose their will upon others, but he remains unwavering in his dedication to showing how the path beyond darkness is best navigated by bringing everything into the light and examining where the ill feelings came from in the first place. Better yet, he never excuses bad or shortsighted behaviours, striking a tone that’s always clear and forthright.

Loach’s cast understands the tone of The Old Oak perfectly from top to bottom. Turner gets to the beating heart of TJ’s melancholy and his exhaustion from being brought into everyone else’s problems all the time. His scenes with Mari’s Yara allow TJ to soften up slightly, and the world seems cathartic or at ease for the first time in his recent years. Laverty and Loach also make sure that Mari has plenty to work with outside her character’s relationship to the pub proprietor, painting a complex picture of a person in a new homeland but still followed by a state of suspended animation and uncertainty from the country she had to flee. Loach also has a knack for making his more contemptible characters interesting, simply because there’s so much out in the open these people are ignoring in a bid to stay furious and feel something more than emptiness. Loach always has the ability to make society’s reprehensible underbelly uniquely compelling, showing that he’s interested in examining the blight and hatred in a bid to counter-argue against it.

The Old Oak is also resolutely bleak, in spite of its moments of brightness, but that also shouldn’t come as a surprise to Loach devotees. In his films, happiness or peace only comes through a combination of hard work and sheer luck. Even then, as is the case here, that happiness is somewhat opaque and in doubt. But no one goes to a Loach film expecting bright sunniness. Those familiar go for hard hitting political stances, uncomfortable conversations, and a mirror that turns back onto the world outside the theatre. Many have already said this about The Old Oak, but if this is indeed the final film from the aging director, it’s a fitting final chapter.

The Old Oak opens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox, ByTowne in Ottawa, and International Village in Vancouver on Friday, April 5, 2024. It will expand to additional cities and theatres in the following weeks.

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