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British director Ken Loach has always had his finger on the pulse of his country’s simmering socio-economic situation, especially when it comes to the plight of the working class. It is therefore not surprising that for his latest feature film, 27th for the 86-year-old director, who made his first film, Poor cowway back in 1967: he decided to address two issues not only at the forefront of British politics, but also in much of Europe and the United States.
Compassionate even if a bit schematic at times, The Old Oak is a story snatched from the headlines about Syrian refugees arriving in a failing blue-collar town in the north of England, and the anger it causes among some residents who are looking for a scapegoat to blame for their woes. You could make pretty much the same movie about Central Americans arriving in Texas, or Sub-Saharan Africans arriving in France, immigration and xenophobia are so much a part of contemporary Western culture — although historically speaking, that’s been the case for a good century, if not more.
The Old Oak
Compassionate and meaningful, if a little superficial.
Place: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Launch: Dave Turner, Ebla Mari, Claire Rodgerson, Trevor Fox, Chris McGlade
Director: Ken Loach
Screenwriter: Paul Laverty
1 hour and 53 minutes
What Loach adds to this scenario, as he has in most of his films, is a natural intimacy that goes beyond issues to bring something human and emotional to the table. In his best moments, The Old Oak strikes those powerful notes without tugging at your heartstrings too hard, with lived-in performances from a non-professional cast, including some actors who were in the director’s most recent films. After nearly sixty years behind the camera, Loach has learned to use his method, telling simple stories that tackle difficult 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 Durham where, in an opening scene composed of black and white photos, Syrian refugees have been bussed in to start a new life, provoking ire among the natives . Among the newcomers is Yara (Elba Mari), who, unlike the other women with her, speaks proper English and doesn’t wear a hijab. She’s an aspiring photographer herself—the opening photos of her were of her—and when an angry citizen breaks her camera, the local pub landlord, TJ (Dave Turner, winner of both Palms I, Daniel Blake AND Sorry we missed you), intervenes to help her.
Much of The Old Oak – which is the name of TJ’s run-down pub – follows the burgeoning friendship between young and combative Yara, who is trying to make a new life in a foreign land, and TJ, a local elder who has lost hope in a place on the brink of collapse. Contrasting is a little easy, and there are too many scenes where Yara or TJ make short talks about their difficulties – Loach is best when he shows instead of telling, letting situations speak for themselves.
But the strength of the organization here is undeniable, especially when TJ decides to reopen the back room of his pub to offer free meals to both Syrians and struggling locals. The idea, as we have been told several times, was inspired by the meals once prepared for striking workers and their families during the social upheavals of the past, when everyone in the village lived off the mine. Those days of class action are long gone, forcing a group of white working-class regulars to reject TJ’s plan for self-defeating racism and patriotism.
While the scenes of fanaticism between the pub-goers may seem a bit exaggerated, 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 it’s when, after loner TJ’s precious dog is killed by a free-roaming pit bull, Yara and her mom show up with a home-cooked 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 has been the author’s trusted scribe ever since Charles song in 1996, Loach achieves such emotional moments through slow-burn storytelling that creates all conflicts and then lets them play out as naturally as possible. He’s directing with a small “d,” as if he’s capturing real life as it’s happening, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan (American honey) adding a dose of warmth and color to the seedy city setting.
Along with the meal scene – and there are a few such meals served in a film where eating collectively is a sign of political solidarity – the other one that struck me was when Yara goes with TJ to pick up food pantries in nearby Durham Cathedral. Beyond some idle talk happening there as well, Loach simply shows the young refugee discovering the beauty of the British landmark for the first time, standing for a moment admiring a choir practice. Mari, in 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 he remains confident in his vision of how culture too can bring us together.