‘The Old Oak’ Review: Ken Loach’s Stirring if Schematic Chronicle of a Small-Town Culture Clash
British director Ken Loach has always had his finger on the pulse of his country’s simmering socioeconomic situation, especially when it concerns the plight of the working class. It’s no surprise, then, that for his latest feature — the 27th for the 86-year-old filmmaker, who made his first movie, Poor Cow, all the way back in 1967 — he’s decided to tackle two issues not only at the forefront of U.K. politics, but most of Europe and the U.S. as well.
Compassionate if a bit schematic at times, The Old Oak is a ripped-from-the-headlines story about Syrian refugees arriving in a failing blue-collar town in northern England, and the anger it provokes among certain residents looking for a scapegoat to pin their problems on. You could make virtually the same movie about Central Americans arriving in Texas, or Sub-Saharan Africans arriving in France, so much are immigration and xenophobia a part of contemporary Western culture — although historically speaking, it’s been that way for a good century, if not more.
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What Loach adds to this scenario, as he’s done in most of his films, is a natural intimacy that goes beyond the issues to bring something human and emotional to the table. In its best moments, The Old Oak hits those powerful notes without pulling too hard on your heartstrings, with lived-in performances from a nonprofessional cast, including a few actors who were in the director’s most recent movies. After nearly six decades behind the camera, Loach has his method down pat, telling simple stories that tackle tough and relevant subjects, but doing it in a way that feels organic to a specific setting.
In this case, that setting is a dwindling working-class town outside of Durham where, in an opening scene composed of black-and-white photos, Syrian refugees have been bused in to start new lives, provoking ire among the natives. The new arrivals include Yara (Elba Mari), who, unlike the other women with her, speaks proper English and does not wear a hijab. She’s also an aspiring photographer — the opening pictures were hers — and when an angry townsman breaks her camera, the local pub owner, TJ (Dave Turner, who was in both Palme winner I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You), steps in to help her out.
Much of The Old Oak — which is the name of TJ’s rundown pub — follows the burgeoning friendship between the young and combative Yara, who’s trying to make a new life for herself in a strange land, and TJ, an aging local who’s given up hope in a place on the brink of collapse. The contrast is a bit facile, and there are too many scenes where either Yara or TJ make short speeches about their predicaments — Loach is best when he’s showing instead of telling, allowing the situations to speak for themselves.
But the strength of the set-up here is undeniable, especially when TJ decides to reopen the backroom of his pub in order to offer free meals to both the Syrians and locals in dire straits. The idea, as we’re told several times, was inspired by meals once made for striking workers and their families during the social upheavals of the past, when everyone in the town lived off the mine. Those days of collective action are long gone, causing a group of white working-class regulars to reject TJ’s plan out of racism and self-defeating patriotism.
While the scenes of bigotry among the pubgoers can feel somewhat overwrought, even if they probably reflect reality, the ones between TJ and Yara can be extremely touching. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment in The Old Oak is when, after the lonely TJ’s prized dog is killed by a pit bull on the loose, Yara and her mother show up with a homemade Syrian meal to comfort him. The way Turner plays that scene, sitting at the table like a broken man, brought tears to my eyes like no other film in Cannes this year.
Working with screenwriter Paul Laverty, who’s been the auteur’s trusted scribe ever since Carla’s Song in 1996, Loach builds up to such emotional high points through a slow-burn narrative that sets up all the conflicts and then has them play out as naturally as possible. It’s directing with a lower-case “d”, as if he were capturing real life as it happened, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan (American Honey) adding a dose of warmth and color to the drab town setting.
Along with the meal scene — and there are a few such meals served in a movie where eating collectively is a sign of political solidarity — the other one that got me was when Yara goes along with TJ to pick up food handouts at nearby Durham Cathedral. Beyond some unnecessary speechifying that happens there as well, Loach simply shows the young refugee discovering the beauty of the British landmark for the first time, standing for a moment to admire a choir practice. Mari, making her screen debut, is luminous in that sequence (as she is in many others), and for a film centered around a major culture clash, The Old Oak remains hopeful in its vision of how culture can also bring us together.
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