The three-dimensional characterization is a casualty of Ken Loach’s ongoing social justice project. Yet the 86-year-old idealologist’s tireless assessment of the human toll demanded by a British Conservative government – in power since 2010 – has had political consequences. His 2016 Palme d’Or winner ‘I, Daniel Blake’, about the UK’s crushing benefits system, had the title screened in the Houses of Parliament and became rallying shorthand among reform activists.
According to Loach, “The Old Oak” will be his last film. And given that his brand of morality comedies filled a void in terms of genuinely revolutionary cinema, it’s precious to take offense at something as cosmetic as a lack of artistry. Indeed, my disenchanted reaction to “The Old Oak,” and its heartfelt account of solidarity against the forces of anti-refugee racism, made me question whether taste matters during times of political despair. If ‘The Old Oak’ can be tapped as a source of humanity in an age where our Prime Minister and his macabre Home Secretary proudly flaunt the slogan ‘Stop The Boats’ does it really matter whether its trend Is using characters solely as spokespeople dramatically boring?
Set in a small abandoned former mining town in the north of England, ‘The Old Oak’ trades in broad strokes sentimentality and painstaking self-awareness. The year is 2016 and Syrian refugees are being housed in this County Durham enclave. While some locals respond to their arrival with a barrage of racial slurs, others, like Tommy Joe Ballantyne (Dave Turner), a pub owner who clings to life, take it upon themselves to offer a warmer welcome. TJ intervenes when a young Syrian photographer, Yara (Ebla Mari), has her camera smashed by a young man in a Newcastle United football shirt. Their friendship becomes the nucleus of a cultural exchange that slowly expands to include more citizens.
The antagonists of the piece are a Greek chorus of racist pranksters – TJ’s regulars and the lifeblood of his pub. The most fallen of these men is Charlie, TJ’s oldest friend, a man who in his bitterness has turned into scapegoated refugees. In an early scene, Charlie and his cronies give voice to the damage caused by property developers who bought nearby properties cheaply, lowering the value of their homes and trapping them there indefinitely. Loach wants to establish that these people have legitimate grievances, but they made the cowardly mistake of hitting instead of punching.
The film flirts with nuance as it shows local children watching enviously as a young Syrian girl is gifted a second-hand bicycle. Just like in America’s Rust Belt states, there is a generation of working-class whites with endless prospects. However, Loach isn’t interested in delving into a complex stew of class and racial tensions, as his antagonists are presented as pantomime villains, with dialogue transcribed from a playbook of racist clichés. There is much mumbling, mumbling, aggressive pint gulping and dramatic ultimatums issued as The Old Oak pub becomes the center of a turf war.
Yara proves to be a sincere community activist, reawakening a long-dormant impulse in TJ to match her efforts. Loach’s regular writer Paul Laverty writes a reluctance into this personal growth, concocting an awkward backstory that serves to load a metric ton of meaning onto her little dog, Marra. With bigger and more dangerous dogs roaming the neighborhood, he immediately fears for this diminutive terrier.
As the narrative progresses, the lack of subtext, texture or psychological complexity in the dialogue begins to irritate. First-time actor Mari brings a sincere vivacity to Yara, making her a plausible driving force for social integration. However, she is burdened with lines that are pure exposition, such as “My children will never see the Palmyra temple, built by the Romans and destroyed by the Islamic State in 2015.” Loach made a terrific documentary “The Spirit of ’45” (2013) about the promising post-war years that gave birth to the NHS and the heartache that followed its stealthy dismantling by a profit-hungry government. The documentary is a logical form for rhetorical cinema. Perhaps his recent trilogy ‘(I, Daniel Blake’, ‘Sorry We Missed You’ and now ‘The Old Oak’) are documentaries masquerading as fiction, as facts are given far more weight than character or story.
Another concrete lesson thrown into the mix is that of the miners’ strike of 1984. This year of proud working class resistance is enshrined by TJ in a cluttered back room of The Old Oak with walls decorated with black and white photographs of the strikers and of their supporters. One of these photos has a caption inspiring Yara to organize free meals so that Syrian refugees and poor locals can come together to break bread and build bonds. He asks TJ if they can use the backstage room at The Old Oak for this event, setting in motion a subplot revolving around being able to fix the plumbing and electricity. Thanks Ken, it doesn’t glamorize event planning.
There are a handful of standout scenes, like when Yara puts together a slideshow of the photos she’s taken of the townspeople. The mostly non-professional cast responds with touching wonder to their image as seen through the eyes of an artist. Though much of the film feels like a breathless tick-tock exercise designed to include every pertinent fact, the chemistry between Turner and Mari leads to a relationship rarely seen in cinema: a platonic friendship between an older man and a younger woman born from mutual respect. The mighty oak that is Ken Loach may be retiring, but I hope he’s been spreading some acorns.
“The Old Oak” premiered in competition at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.