THE OLD OAK
FOUR STARS Syrian refugees are being housed in a struggling British town. Locals aren't happy.
DRAMA UK English #THEOLDOAK
Starring Dave Turner, Elba Mari
At the tender age of 87, champion of socialist social realism Ken Loach is still fighting the good fight with one of his most rewarding films in recent years. He’s made a career shining a bright light on the poor and disadvantaged as well as the bad policies that have made life unbearably difficult for so many Britons. From LADYBIRD, LADYBIRD to I, DANIEL BLAKE, he sounds the clarion to social injustice. The results are typically bleak and can be unbearable to watch (noble, worthwhile, but unbearable). Yet as he’s aged and to the surprise of many, the director has found more to hope for and THE OLD OAK, prime Loach, is one of his most hopeful films in recent years.
Which is seemingly at odds with the source material. Syrian refugees are being rehoused in a poor British town and locals aren’t pleased. They argue their presence (read: religion) upsets social harmony, it means increased crime and more people fighting for the same few jobs in the shattered economy of a former mining town. Them just being there depresses property prices, trapping the few home owners who might have had the means to get out.
In the middle of all this, TJ (an impressive Dave Turner) is trying to prop up The Old Oak, a crumbling flea pit of a pub that attempts to provide some kind of social focus for the town. He’s also the kind of man who infuriates those locals with his willingness to care, exemplified when befriends Yara, a young Syrian woman who becomes the ad hoc face and voice of the refugee community. The old guard who prop up his bar, and therefore his business, aren’t happy at all: where TJ sees people in need, they see interlopers, foreigners and thieves. And so they set about sabotaging his efforts to bring the community together, forcing the pub owner into a very tight corner.
THE OLD OAK is, as mentioned, steeped in social realism. Loach and longtime collaborator Paul Laverty have crafted a script that feels like docudrama in its quest for authenticity. What’s more, they’re determined to give all their characters a (mostly) justifiable point of view, that of everyday people, which they are. Even when they’re unreasonable, they are understandable.
By refusing to paint characters in black and white - just as none are saints, none are irredeemable sinners - Loach presents a very real portrait of a social anxiety. No one likes change when it’s forced upon them, whether you’re fifth generation British or a newly displaced Syrian. But now that it’s here, how best to handle it? Therein the question posed by THE OLD OAK, one for which TJ has a ready, compassionate answer.
Unfortunately for him he also bungles the delivery. TJ lets a long dormant room in his pub be used for a community kitchen that feeds locals and refugees alike. His charitable intent is then targeted by a few of his white patrons who’d been denied use of the room as a place to air their concerns: an old man’s moaning club, basically, something TJ wasn’t willing to endorse. Scenes like these beautifully articulate Loach and Laverty’s central premise with clean, concise precision.
While gimmicky minimalists like Lars von Trier have long since faded away, political plain-speakers like Loach are still at it (and lucky for us he is). At 87, you have to wonder if there is another film in him but if this is anything to go by, cinema’s old oak still stands strong. But if it should turn out to be his finale, what a thoughtful, hopeful and inspirational way to end.