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FILM REVIEW: ‘The Old Oak’ directed by Ken Loach

Loach has always believed (too sanguinely) in the power of the working class, but his recent work has been much less optimistic about the workers capacity to transform a recalcitrant social and political world.

Ken Loach, a veteran of six decades of filmmaking, has announced that “The Old Oak” is his last film. The octogenarian, unabashedly politically radical, social-realist British director is one of the rare filmmakers whose works deal with the economic and social reality of working-class lives.

In recent years he has directed “I, Daniel Blake” (2016), about a Geordie carpenter’s struggle with a dehumanizing, overly bureaucratic welfare system; “Sorry We Missed You” (2018), about working in the exploitative gig economy and getting little protection, including union membership; and “The Old Oak.”

All three films eschew formal virtuosity—no striking camera angles or compositions and also no obliqueness or irony—for an authentic and unadorned depiction of working-class consciousness and life. And Loach is the rare director whose films have had an impact on political debate in England. All three films made with screenwriter Paul Laverty, using mostly nonprofessionals, attempt and more often than not succeed in conveying a sense of the entrapment and despair at the heart of British working-class life. “The Old Oak” is as strong and possibly angrier, portraying a mining community that has lost its mooring and looks for victims to blame in the expressive language of its central character: “We all look for a scapegoat when life goes to shit.”

“The Old Oak” directed by Ken Loach.

“The Old Oak” is set in a dying mining village in county Durham in England’s Northeast. The film’s central figure, a morose, solitary T.J. (Dave Turner), was once active in the community but has now lost connection with his family. He owns a pub, The Old Oak, that has seen better days. It has a few regulars, but the pub feels moribund.

The village is suddenly confronted with a group of Syrian refugees who have been bused in and settled in row houses after years living in camps in their war-ravaged country. Most of the locals are economically marginal, broken, and hostile and express resentment towards the Syrians (e.g., calling them “f*ckin’ ragheads”). Meanwhile, a withdrawn T. J. remains neutral, wary of alienating his customers.

However, he is prodded and moved by a local community organizer and especially by a young English-speaking refugee photographer, Yara (Ebla Mari), who takes photographs of the locals and looks with care at photographs on the pub’s wall of the 1984 miners’ strike and the feelings of solidarity that it elicited. Her talk about the photos reminds T.J. what his father and grandfather stood for, and the times when the community was intact and broke bread together. T.J. remembers his father’s words: “If the workers realized the power they had, and had the confidence to use it, they could change the world. But we never did.” Loach has always believed (too sanguinely) in the power of the working class, but his recent work has been much less optimistic about the workers capacity to transform a recalcitrant social and political world.

In this film, Loach’s characters are not treated with great psychological depth, but they seamlessly and vitally serve his political and social vision of a divided Britain. Yara is a woman of deep feeling, courage, and commitment, whose father has just died in a Syrian prison. Her wish to forge a link between the refugees and the local working class resurrects T.J.’s desire to make a commitment to clean up his backroom and use it as the venue for a food-bank-style community supper. It is a big success, but some of the angriest locals destroy the backroom and make it unusable.

Loach could have concluded on that dark note — for there is little sign that the English workers have embraced the migrants and refugees. However, he leaves us here with a final image of a solidarity march of locals and refugees with T.J. and Yara leading it. Loach may know just how difficult that is to realize, but in his 80s, he still hungers to believe in that political dream.

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