|Dave Turner, Ebla Mari, Claire Rodgerson, Trevor Fox, Chris McGlade, Col Tait
|November 30, 2023
His career has spanned 7 different decades and now, at the age of 87, English filmmaker Ken Loach has decided to fold up his director’s chair for the final time. His films never set the box-office on fire, but he’ll be remembered for using the medium cinema to bring awareness to important societal issues, and for telling stories that feel real and natural. He’s one of only 9 directors to have won multiple Palme d’Ors (the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival) – for The Wind That Shakes the Barley in 2006 and I, Daniel Blake in 2016. See both if you haven’t already.
Working with long-time screenwriting collaborator Paul Laverty, The Old Oak is a story about immigration and multiculturalism – often a controversial conversation topic amongst Brits. Results from the most recent government census, completed in 2021, showed a statistical-high 10 million people (or roughly 18% of the population) identify as non-white in England and Wales. Some have embraced this change while others have pushed back.
The Old Oak is set in a small town in North-East England which, due a decline in the mining industry, has fallen on tough times. There’s an early scene where a resident complains about the declining value of his home – a product of the fact no one wants to move into the area. The sole pub in town, The Old Oak, is a dump with only a handful of regular customers. It’s so rundown that the kitchen/function room, a thriving hub back in the day, is now boarded up and unused because of safety concerns. The cost to repair would far outweigh any new business.
The crux of the movie is about a group of Syrian refugees who move into town and start filling the many empty homes with the help of the government and charity organisations. You might think new blood would be embraced by the financially struggling community, but factions are quickly formed. There are some who cling to a view of the town they had several decades ago, and don’t want their neighbourhood overrun by non-English speaking Muslims. On the flip side, there are some who do lay out the “welcome mat” and, appreciative of the trauma these migrants have been through, offer support wherever possible.
Loach has a knack for great casting and that’s again the case here. He uses lesser-known actors which adds to the film’s “realness”. The characters speak and interact in an ordinary manner and, in avoiding cliches, he creates a vibe that is more like a fly-on-the-wall documentary than a fictional drama. The film’s two leads are Dave Turner and Ebla Mari who have next-to-zero feature film experience between them, but their performances are both superb. In real life, he’s a retired fireman turned pub manager while she’s a Syrian national who lives in a town which borders Israel.
It’s a film is also to be admired for astutely capturing the best and worst of the human condition. Topics like multiculturalism can easily be trivialised when covered by vote-grabbing politicians, and clickbait-generating journalists but Loach digs deep, and gives audiences something to think about and reflect upon. Movies are often focused on providing simple entertainment (nothing wrong with that) but The Old Oak has loftier ambitions and wants to make the world a better place.