In The Old Oak, an English man and a Syrian woman become unlikely friends on one side of a simmering culture war. It’s the latest from Ken Loach and, if reports are true, it will be the 86-year-old director’s last. The Old Oak is, of course, a timely story about modern Britain, immigration, and xenophobia. It’s also a parting statement from Loach––one last rallying cry for solidarity––and a fitting coda to his six-decade long career.
It’s hard to imagine that Loach first made his name in 1964: viewers who watched Cathy Come Home on the BBC that week could have seen “Good Vibrations” go to number 1 on Top of The Pops. Seen by a quarter of the population, it in fact did change British attitudes towards homelessness. Occasionally to the point of self-parody, Loach has never stopped making that kind of film: stories purpose-built to nudge at prejudices and preconceptions, little reminders to always point the finger at those in power. Across the years that artistic process has given us Kes, Sweet Sixteen and The Wind That Shakes The Barley (for which he won the first of two Palme d’Ors).
The Old Oak is set in the North East of England, in Durham, a case study of the kind of mining towns that used to thrive. With the local economy gutted, what remains of the community are left to face the daily indignities of plummeting property values, job scarcity, and disappearing public spaces. In Loach’s film (as usual, from a screenplay by Paul Laverty), the eponymous pub––one of the last remaining spaces––becomes the front line of a turf war between its most loyal patrons (and last remaining sources of income) and a growing diaspora of Syrian refugees. If Loach will never win any awards for subtlety, his allegories––gentle and sincere to the last––are nothing if not effective.
Amongst the newcomers are Yara (Ebla Mari) and her family, who arrive by bus at the film’s start. (In a rare aesthetic flourish, Loach and DP Robbie Ryan introduce the story in still black-and-white images, as if taken from the Yara’s camera.) She meets TJ Balentyne (a typically sweet-sad Loach protagonist, played nicely by Dave Turner), the owner and barman of the Old Oak. During the commotion, Yara’s camera is damaged by a thug and TJ offers to get it fixed. No sooner have the duo formed a bond (in a particularly moving sequence, TJ is introduced to her family) than they find common cause. Setting up a free kitchen in the pub’s old function room, they bring their struggling communities together and, however briefly, suggest a way forward.
Of course, nothing is ever that simple. On the other side are TJ’s regular clientele, who run the gamut from reasonable to racist––though Loach tactfully sketches them with enough nuance to avoid slipping into caricature. Loach has always been interested in the way people discuss politics, how opinions ebb and flow and escalate, and, occasionally, how a group can become a mob. Understandable grievances (why would a government choose, one man asks, to burden a community which already has so little to go around?) get lobbed together with boilerplate racist sentiments. Frustration turns to anger, and anger loves an easy scapegoat. Though The Old Oak asks the obvious questions and suggests an obvious answer, Loach’s film is hardly unrealistic or cynical in its expectations.
The director ends what may be his final film with two sequences that effectively sum up his politics and personal history, his work and his worldview. The first takes place in a cathedral; the second outside a house. In each, transcendental moments sit beautifully alongside tacit admissions about the limitations of his art: that change rarely, if ever, happens overnight––if even in a lifetime––and that it must always begin on small streets, in solitary minds. He has changed a fair few.
The Old Oak premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival.