#She Reviews Film: The Old Oak

November 29, 2023

In 87-year-old Ken Loach’s self-confessed swansong film The Old Oak we find compassion, grittiness and hope. Penned by Paul Laverty, this is a story firmly set in place and time. The year is 2016 in a Northern England town not far from Durham. The community is hanging on by a thread and still reeling from the miner’s strikes, accidents and mine shutdowns of the 80’s. It’s impoverished and experiencing a real downturn. Houses are selling for a fraction of their original price much to the
despair of disgruntled locals.

It’s a time and place I remember well as I visited this area in the 80’s and have many friends who were brought up here. The people had lived through tough times and were wary of strangers, even from the Antipodeans, so you can imagine the reactions to the arrival many years later of Syrian refugees who were to live in their community. The Old Oak of the title is a pub which has seen better days. Yet, it is still the only place in town where people can still meet. Everything else has shut down.The owner TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner) pours his beers and doesn’t interfere in his patron’s business. He is tasked by charity worker, Laura (Claire Rodgerson) to help out with her charity deliveries in his van. We soon learn he is a man filled with morals, compassion and kindness.

When the Syrian refugees arrive, TJ strikes up an unlikely friendship with a girl called Yara, played beautifully by Ebla Mari. They bond over a camera which has a special meaning for Yara. Soon the pair are plotting to unite both of their communities but there is resistance from many of the locals. We see both sides of the coin with many saying that“Charity should begin at home.”

As conflicts and cracks appear we also see scenes of understanding and bonding. Yara’s father is still in a prison with 100 people to a cell. Inmates are starved, tortured and there is not even enough room to sit down. Although times are tough in their new home, these people have experienced much worse. This could have been a bleak and sad movie but is ultimately a film of hope.

I loved seeing this gritty setting and in light of what is happening in the world it shone a light on the plight of refugees and the difficulties of integrating into foreign communities after war. One would hope that there are plenty of TJ’s in the world who are there to help with their kindness and practical solutions.

I enjoyed The Old Oak with its real characters, portrayal of life in Northern England and its message in which Ken Loach invited us to approach life with compassion and a genuine understanding. The ensemble cast were believable and made me think and weep. It is issue led filmmaking at its finest and Ken Loach has left a legacy of films which invite you to ponder upon your own position when it comes to moral issues. The Old Oak will be in cinemas November 30. It’s ultimately a hopeful and insightful film which will deeply move you.

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