Ken Loach filmed the climactic scene in his latest movie, a revelation in Durham Cathedral, on his 86th birthday last summer. The Old Oak completes a trilogy of recent films about deprivation and injustice set in the north-east, in succession to the Cannes-crowned benefits drama I, Daniel Blake (2016) and the gig economy horror Sorry We Missed You (2019). It will make an apt conclusion, if that turns out to be so, to an intransigently committed career that began with Poor Cow in 1967 and the imperishable Kes two years later. So the film must be seen in that mighty context – but also assessed in its own right.
The Old Oak begins with the arrival of a group of Syrian refugees in a depressed former mining town in County Durham in 2016. This unnamed town has been compiled from several in the region, including Easington, Horden and Murton. Loach, his regular scriptwriter Paul Laverty and his producer Rebecca O’Brien develop their projects by sustained visits to the areas they plan to film in, meeting people there, listening to them and observing. Then, pursuing authenticity further, they cast as many non-professional locals as possible, filming them in situ.
The Syrian arrivals, decanted from a bus, are baffled and confused, getting a rough reception from the locals. “Who the f**k are they?” one shouts. One of the refugees, a young woman called Yara (Ebla Mari), who uniquely speaks English and doesn’t wear the hijab, is documenting the scene with an expensive camera, until an oaf in a Newcastle shirt knocks it out of her hand and smashes it. Yara is devastated. We’re to learn that this camera was the precious gift of her father, before his arrest by the Assad regime. The camera saved her life, she says; it gave her hope.
Looking on is an older man, TJ (Dave Turner, a former firefighters’ union official who had small parts in Loach’s last two films and is excellent as joint lead here, looking like a boozy, battered, Tyneside take on Gene Hackman). TJ, once a miner, keeps the last local pub, The Old Oak, open, though he’s in a pretty bad way himself, divorced and despairing, succoured only by his little dog, Marra. TJ still has a heart, though. He helps Yara get her camera fixed and they become tentative friends. Then the trouble begins. His regulars, including one of his oldest friends, Charlie (Trevor Fox), reject the newcomers. They accuse TJ of shagging Yara in the cellar. “We don’t want any ragheads in our boozer,” they say. And, just to make the theme explicit, they protest: “This is the last public space we’ve got in our lives.”
They demand that TJ let them use the pub’s back room to organise opposition to the immigrants. TJ refuses. Instead, he and Yara, inspired by photos of solidarity in the miners’ strike of 1984 (“They shall not starve”) open the back room as a community kitchen, bringing the Syrians and locals together for much-needed free meals – until the racists intervene.
In the first half of the film (beautifully shot by Robbie Ryan), Laverty and Loach give startling expression to the anger of a community that feels too deprived to cope with more demands. “What can we do? We can’t even look after our own.” The toxic influence of social media is much to blame for the racism, the film hints, the topers consulting their iPads between pints.
Then the film drowns in sentimentality and wishful thinking. The communities come together, reviving the spirit of the miners’ strike. Yara is the bridge between them. (Though the Syrian families depicted are actual local immigrants, Ebla Mari, who gives a fine lead performance, is neither Syrian nor Muslim but a Druze drama teacher from the occupied Golan Heights.)
Yara puts on a poignant slideshow of her photos of the town and its inhabitants in the back room, to the music of an oud, revealing to all what they have in common. When bad news comes from Syria about her father, everybody turns up on the family’s doorstep bringing food and flowers, in a scene oddly reminiscent of the mourning for Princess Diana. In Durham Cathedral (“The cathedral doesn’t belong to the Church, it belongs to the workers who built it,” we are assured) she experiences an epiphany: “If I stop hoping, my heart will stop beating.” The film closes with her in the middle of the Miners’ Gala march through Durham, a new banner celebrating the arrivals.
I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You, targeting the welfare system and the gig economy respectively, ended bleakly. The Old Oak, with no one to blame, contrives nostalgic affirmation, at the cost of basic plausibility. We will not see Ken Loach’s like again, I suspect.
“The Old Oak” is in cinemas now
This article appears in the 27 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Right Power List