Ken Loach, a grammar-school boy with a law degree from Oxford, has long been British cinema’s voice of the working classes. From films such as Poor Cow (1967) and Kes (1969), to The Old Oak, Loach has delivered a consistent brand of social realism steeped in compassion and anger.
At the age of 87, the director says this film will be his last, although this isn’t a first flirtation with retirement. He threatened as much before he made I, Daniel Blake in 2016. Together with Sorry We Missed You (2019) and now, The Old Oak, the films form a loose trilogy inspired by England’s slide into despair under successive Tory governments. If Loach makes another film it can only mean things have gotten worse! I give no credence to rumours that he’s preparing a feature about the performance of the English cricket team in this year’s World Cup.
Despite the tide of misery that usually engulfs his characters, Loach is an optimist. He wants to believe human beings are basically good-hearted, no matter how their attitudes may be deformed by circumstances. This is the spirit that shines through The Old Oak, in defiance of the events of the story, and the social trends it captures in such detail.
The setting is a small town in the north-east of England, near Durham. It’s 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum, when a majority of people, in opposition to their own best economic interests, decided they wanted to ‘take their country back’. Although Brexit is never mentioned in this film, the conditions that brought it to fruition are on full display. House prices in the village are tumbling, with rows of terraces being sold to overseas investors for knock-down prices. Disgruntled locals meet in the pub to pick over their grievances, and talk about the old days, when their fathers laboured in the coal mines.
In the midst of this grumbling, a bus load of Syrian refugees arrives, so displaced families can be resettled in empty houses. For many of the villagers this is the last straw. They feel they have been forgotten by their own government while these foreigners are given special treatment. They can barely feed their own families and now must play host to people who don’t understand the local language or customs.
Publican, T.J. Ballantyne (Dave Turner) doesn’t share the bitter mindset of his clientele. A compassionate man who has made a mess of his own life, T.J. is just scraping by, serving up a few pints every night. The pub is a ruin but he has no money for repairs. His wife left him years ago, and his son won’t speak to him anymore. The only bright spot in his life is his terrier, Marra.
Although T.J. is struggling, he feels the Syrians have had a much harder time, being cast out of their homes by civil war, watching friends and family murdered by the Assad regime. They have nothing left but a frail thread of hope. T.J. does his best to help the newcomers, silently absorbing his customers’ nightly outpourings of racism and xenophobia. Although he is an empathetic person, his efforts are also a penance for his own deeply felt shortcomings.
The spine of this film is the relationship that develops between T.J. and Yara (Ebla Mari), a young Syrian woman who speaks good English and wants to be a professional photographer. When Yara’s camera is broken by an aggressive yob as she gets off the bus, T.J. helps her out, selling some old cameras he has in storage to pay for the repairs. An entirely platonic friendship grows up between Yara and T.J. that draws a stream of derisory comments and obscenities from his customers.
Dave Turner, whose only previous roles have been in the past two Loach movies, is tremendous in the lead, and Ebla Mari, on debut, is a real discovery. Whatever Loach loses in dramatic impact by using amateur and unknown actors, he gains through the grainy authenticity of the performances.
Matters come to a head when the regulars decide there should be a town meeting in which everyone can speak out against the refugees. They want to use the back room of the pub, which T.J. keeps locked. He refuses, saying the room needs to be repaired and rewired. But when Yara comes up with the idea that this room should be used for community meals so the villagers can get to know their new neighbours, T.J. will overcome his scruples and embrace the project. It’s a sign of his disgust with his old friends, and a definitive statement of where he stands. The predictable antagonisms will follow.
Loach and his regular scriptwriter, Paul Laverty, take time to develop the characters, letting us understand T.J. and Yara’s stories. They also show how the blokes in the pub have become so embittered. They are the villains in this movie but are not demonised for their racist rants. It’s vile but all too understandable. When ordinary people have everything taken away from them by the abstract forces of government and capital, they need an identifiable outlet for their frustrations.
We are constantly made aware of the town’s history as a mining community and of the solidarity forged between citizens during times of crisis, most notably the Miners Strike of 1984, in which Margaret Thatcher set out to break the power of the unions – and largely succeeded. The Tory’s neo-liberal agenda would bring short-term prosperity for the few, and long-term misery for the working classes. The coal industry would be privatised and the mining towns decimated. Thirty years later, T.J.’s community is nothing more than a shell of its former self.
Loach clings gamely to a leftwing dream of the masses coming together to realise the enormous social power they possess. It’s a utopian idea today, when the poorest people have become disenchanted with politics and are voting for right-wing firebrands, in a milieu in which hatred and division are supercharged by social media.
In today’s world, Loach’s vision seems hopelessly old-fashioned but more necessary than ever. The enormous resources that have been channelled into private hands could do much to resolve the crises of health, education and housing that have become endemic in wealthy countries. The lefties who once fought for workers’ rights and social justice are now obsessed with gender issues, pursuing campaigns that deliver their traditional constituency into the hands of extremists.
To imagine a resurgence of working-class solidarity in which the lowest levels of British society unite with poor refugees to create a new community spirit is – to put it politely – pie in the sky. In Britain today, a progressively more desperate Tory party has commandeered the “Stop the Boats” slogan that worked so well for their Australian counterparts and is pushing a scheme to send refugees to Rwanda. As mainstream politicians try to mobilise the forces of division, Loach wants his audience to think the unthinkable and rediscover a shared core of humanity. In The Old Oak he puts forward a passionate, valedictory plea for common decency. You may say he’s a dreamer, but the likely alternatives are looking increasingly scary.
The Old Oak
Directed by Ken Loach
Written by Paul Laverty
Starring: Dave Turner, Ebla Mari, Claire Rodgerson, Trevor Fox, Chris McGlade, Col Tait, Jordan Louis, Chrissie Robinson, Chris Gotts, Jen Patterson, Arthur Oxley, Joe Armstrong
UK/France/Belgium, MA 15+, 113 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 9 December, 2023