Once again, Ken Loach pairs up with screenwriter Paul Laverty in order to deliver a politically-charged drama bursting with his trademark social realism. The two men have now worked together for nearly three decades. This is the Britain that the Tories do not want you to see: impoverished, despondent, hopeless and furious. A once thriving mining community in County Durham is now home to widespread poverty, with houses selling for as little as £8,000. Middle-aged, unemployed men have little to do other than drink at the local watering hole, from which the film borrows its title. This is where they reminisce about the glorious days of yore, while also venting their anger at refugees, whom they blame for pretty much every single one of their woes.
TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner) is the pub landlord, a kind man from a broken family. His parents died a long time ago, and he is estranged from his ex-wife and only child. His sole companion is a small black bitch called Marra (a miners’ term of affection for a trusted friend), who once saved his life in a near-tragedy. He welcomes a family of Syrian refugees into the town with open arms, protecting the polite and intelligent Yara (Ebla Mari) from the taunts and escalating abuse of all sorts coming from from his very own clients. One of such bullies is TJ’s childhood friend Charlie (Dave Turner). Yara enjoys taking photographs of the local people with an old black-and-white camera that her father gave her (her parent is now missing, perhaps even dead). These images punctuate the movie, while also providing it with a timeless feel (Yara’s photographs fuse smoothly with real pictures of the miners in a not-so-distant past).
Racism shows its ugly face already in the very first sequence: a football fan charasses Yara and her family as they first disembark in town. The disgruntled pub patrons constantly hurl xenophobic comments and insults at Yara. They tell her: “go back to where you came from”. She retorts: “that’s exactly what I want”, in one of the films most sobering lines. They perpetuate old refugee myths, insisting that these people are lazy scroungers living the dream, and have access to opportunities that the British are being denied. A local child bemoans a refugee who has been given a bicycle, an item that he does not possess. A woman condemns the way Yara walks into the pub: “she enters this place as if it was her house. What’s next? Building a mosque?”. A man regrets that the local union donated an industrial juicer to the refugees: “are they getting a jacuzzi, too?”. Their wrath rises to a very high temperature when TJ converts a disused part of the pub into a refugee integration and activity area. They feel betrayed.
Refugees are the perfect scapegoats for anger brewing inside these people. Ken Loach reveals that poverty is a catalyst for hate. Those who can hardly make ends can easily feel easily threatened by outsiders. These people have little interest in compassion because they are overcome by their own afflictions. Loach and Laverty get to the roots of racism without condoning it. Quite the contrary: the second half of the film (particularly the final scene) demonstrates that international solidarity starts on our very own turf. Each and everyone of us can make a difference. It’s time to welcome a refugee!
The Old Oak is tearjerker brimming with authenticity. The settings look extremely real: the facades are derelict, the inside walls are mouldy and crumbly, the fridge is rusty and empty. Even the pub sign is collapsing. And the dialogues are thoroughly credible, the type of stuff you would hear in a pub such as this. I would hazard a guess that most of the actors are non-professional locals and that the Syrian families are real Syrian refugees. This is what makes the viewing experience so remarkable. On the other hand, Loach’s latest film is a little more didactic and less emotionally engaging than the two previous ones: the heart-wrenching I Daniel Blake (2016) and the devastating Sorry We Missed You (2019). It is also a little bit more hopeful and upbeat, suggesting that Britain might find the road towards refugee integration after all. The timing of The Old Oak is very pertinent: right now the UK government are trying to pass a bill that would result in 3,000 refugees a month being deported. That’s one refugee forcibly removed every 15 minutes.
The Old Oak just premiered in the Official Competition of the 76th Cannes Film Festival. This may be Ken Loach’s final movie, after the director declared that his short-term memory and eyesight are no longer what they used to be. Loach has won the Palme d’Or twice, first for The Wind that Shakes the Barley in 2006 and then for I Daniel Blake, 10 years later. The iconic British filmmaker is now aged 86, 10 years older than the Festival itself. Could he become the first person in history to win Cannes three times?
Ken Loch’s The Old Oak won the UBS Prix du Public Audience Award at the 76th Locarno Film Festival.
In UK cinemas on Friday, September 29th.