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The Old Oak review: Not Ken Loach’s best, but it’d be a solid send-off for a potentially retiring great

Speculated to be the British filmmaker’s final film, this isn’t particularly angry nor compelling, but it is an honest piece of work tackling many of the themes that have always driven him

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 28 September 2023 16:00 BST
The Old Oak trailer

Martin Scorsese, who turns 81 next month, recently gave an interview in which he spoke extensively about his own mortality. “I don’t think it’s a matter of one last great thing,” he concluded. “It’s a matter of continuing, exploring.” It was hard not to think of the great American director’s words while watching The Old Oak, the (supposed) last film by the great British director Ken Loach.

There’s always been a presumption that someone’s last work should be treated as final testament (hence Quentin Tarantino’s obsession with bowing out after only 10 films), but, here especially, that obsession with legacy feels limiting. The Old Oak is far from Loach’s best work. It’s not his angriest film, nor is it his most narratively or politically compelling. But it is the honest product of an artist who has committed himself, since his 1967 debut Poor Cow, to holding the powerful to account and illuminating the stories they would rather we ignore.

The Old Oak belongs to a loose trilogy of films based in the north-east, alongside 2016’s I, Daniel Blake, focused on the benefits system, and 2019’s Sorry We Missed You, about the gig economy. It takes place in a town outside of Durham, one of the many, many communities that have faced almost total economic abandonment, only for arriving Syrian refugees to become the scapegoats. The film is populated by non-professional actors, who can speak with bracing honesty, but also struggle to carry the more traditional demands of character and narrative.

However, Loach has found himself strong and convincing leads. Dave Turner plays TJ Ballantyne, the owner of the Old Oak pub, an establishment in desperate need of funds. All the houses nearby have been bought up for cheap by anonymous investment companies and left to rot. His only regulars are old friends, whom he’s had to watch turn sour and hateful. Ebla Mari, meanwhile, plays Yara, a young Syrian woman and a recent arrival.

She’s a photographer, and the film opens with the images she captures of her and her family arriving by bus, circled by the pinched, angry faces of locals. TJ intervenes before the situation threatens to explode into violence. It bonds the pair, as they try to find some common ground and both save the pub and revive some sense of the community that once was. A backroom, unused for years, sees its walls littered with photographs of the 1984 miners’ strike.

TJ and Yara’s friendship is sincere and uplifting. Yet, the sense here is that injustice has reached its breaking point. It’s an infection that’s spread into every corner of this town, and all that Loach can do is document its evils. Yara, at one point, helps a local girl home after she’s fallen ill, only to find the cupboards bare. A little Syrian child shows TJ her dolls, named after the friends back home that she will never see again. There’s even a topical subplot about large, aggressive dogs.

Loach is so cohesive here, in accommodating the expansiveness of all these social ills, that characters have an unfortunate tendency to become mouthpieces. White locals speak in vox pop phrases (a lot “we can’t even look after our own” and “I’m not racist but…”). Yara is relied upon to be unbreakably stoic and hopeful in her grief, while TJ is the one allowed to have all the rich, conflicted emotions. Perhaps, then, The Old Oak isn’t that “one last great thing”. But it is a testament to a director who has never abandoned his beliefs.

Dir: Ken Loach. Starring: Dave Turner, Ebla Mari, Claire Rodgerson, Trevor Fox, Chris McGlade, Col Tait, Jordan Louis. 15, 113 minutes.

‘The Old Oak’ is in cinemas from 29 September

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