The Old Oak Review | A Masterpiece of Compassion

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Beyond being one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Ken Loach is undoubtedly one of the most compassionate, at least in the etymological sense of the word. Compassion quite literally means ‘to suffer with’ or ‘to suffer together’ from the old Latin (passio or passus leading to passion, and hence ‘the passion of Christ’). Loach’s films portray a lot of suffering, certainly, but he reminds us how much solidarity and power can form when people choose to suffer together rather than apart, alone in their own silos of misery. His new film, The Old Oak, is a perfect swan song to a career exploring these themes.




The Old Oak serves as the final part of the ‘Northeastern Trilogy’ between Loach and writer Paul Laverty (with whom he’s worked for more than three decades), following the Palme d’Or winningI, Daniel Blake and the underrated Sorry We Missed You. Together, the three films illustrate the systemic failures of post-Thatcher economics in the UK, and The Old Oak in particular details the decaying fate of many towns which were once thriving because of steel and mining industries. As a result, property is cheapened, so the government chose places like these to bring and house refugees, creating only more animosity with the already bitter residents.


The film is set in 2016, when the first official wave of Syrian refugees came to England, and follows both the hostile reactions and the cautious kindness of locals. Some will only lean into racist tropes and hate ‘the outsiders,’ as they’ve been instructed to by politicians. The others who open up their hearts discover purpose, joy, and, yes, decades after the government killed union and labor power, a sense of solidarity. It’s a great film, and a perfect swan song for Ken Loach’s career. At 87, he does not believe he’ll make another film, and if he doesn’t, he’ll have signed off with a beautiful epitaph.


Ken Loach Understands Our Hate and Love

The Old Oak

The Old Oak

4.5/5

Release Date
September 29, 2023

Cast
Dave Turner , Ebla Mari , Claire Rodgerson , Trevor Fox , Chris McGlade

Runtime
143 Minutes

Writers
Paul Laverty

Studio(s)
StudioCanal UK , Sixteen Films , Why Not Productions

Pros

  • A realistic, beautiful story of human compassion.
  • Honest performances from real people.
  • An important and complex message is handled without pretension or didactics.


The titular Old Oak is the only real pub in town in Loach’s film, and it has obviously seen better days. So has its owner, TJ Ballantyne, perfectly played by the quietly soulful non-actor Dave Turner. Though he appeared in small parts in the other two films of Loach’s Northeastern Trilogy, those were his only other performances; the director knew what he was doing when Turner was cast, however. TJ feels so true, as do the other cast members, many of whom are non-actors. Loach gets a documentary-like approach by casting people who essentially relate to their characters or setting. The same can be said for the people cast as refugees here.

Related: Best Ken Loach Films, Ranked

Ebla Mari, in her film debut, is wonderfully touching as Yara, a young Syrian woman with a penchant for photography whom TJ meets at the start of the film. A roughneck breaks her camera and TJ promises to get it fixed; like many wounded people, he finds a sense of purpose in helping others. That’s where the theme of compassion comes in — Loach reminds us that we have all been broken in some way by some system, and dares us to locate that commonality in one another rather than seek scapegoats for our suffering.


Yara and TJ form the backbone of The Old Oak as two very damaged people seeking a way to heal their community. The rest of the town and refugees are well fleshed-out, however, creating a multilayered place in which you understand people’s motives, no matter how disgusting they may seem. A few people are pure bigot scumbags; others have just been hurt so much that they think a hijab will hijack their lives. You know how it goes — hurt people hurt people. But there are also sweet, delightful people here, too, keeping the film from sinking too much into its own heaviness.

Get Together and Get the Good Kind of Angry at The Old Oak


The Old Oak is an incredibly political film without ever being didactic or preachy. Yes, there are some righteous monologues, but those are always handled well by Paul Laverty and Loach’s casts. Complaining about those would be like whining over speeches or chants at a strike or rally. Loach makes protest cinema, and in our era, subtlety can sometimes be a risk. He makes it abundantly clear what is happening in small cities across the world (be they English, Syrian, or American) and that he and we are pissed about it, but he stops short of shoving ideological dogma down your throat.

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The result is an small but inspiring film about how little acts of solidarity are often more powerful than anything the politicians or corporations will ever do. They will turn us against each other. They will buy out the property in our towns and sell it at a fraction of the cost we paid. They will starve the strikers and reward the scabs with a cushy minimum wage. They will abandon us when we don’t have enough votes or money to be significant. They will treat us like doormats to step inside their mansions.


That’s the kind of anger The Old Oak evokes, but it also summons tears and swells of empathy. Watching disparate people from different parts of the world come together to try and create a meal hall for everyone in the working class, you see the power of solidarity when it transcends race and culture. The old photographs and placards of striking miners and slogans, buried away in the back room of the pub, remind the new Syrian refugees of this. “They shall not starve,” one sign reads. “When you eat together, you stick together,” reads another.

It’s in this way that Loach offers us some hope at the twilight of his career, even if The Old Oak is indeed a very sad film. The character of Yara, with her camera, epitomizes this. Her father, wasting away in prison, gave her the camera before she left war-ravaged Syria. She tells TJ, “I saw a lot of things I wish I hadn’t seen. I don’t have the words to describe them. But when I look through this camera, I choose to see some hope and some strength. So I choose how I live with this camera.” This is Loach’s confession, and the result is our inspiration.


The Old Oak has its U.S. theatrical premiere on Friday, April 5 at Film Forum. There is a magnificent retrospective of Ken Loach’s filmography that will follow its run, from April 19 to May 2 at Film Forum, screening more than 20 of the master’s films. You can find more information through the link below:

See The Old Oak

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