The director's alleged "final" movie is another heavy-handed revolt against modern Britain, but its optimism eventually wins through
Be warned: The Old Oak, the latest and supposedly last film from the great British director Ken Loach (something of an old oak himself) lands with the same heavy-handed, social realist sway of his last two films: Palme-winner I, Daniel Blake and, to even more of an extent, the gig economy drama Sorry We Missed You. Written by Loach's frequent collaborator Paul Laverty, those movies hit you over the head with a clunking obviousness that reverberated like the last orders bell behind a bar. And just like those movies, Loach's 27th film, in spite of dialogue that sounds like it's been piped in from a British soap opera, just about convinces us of its purpose.
The Old Oak takes place in 2016, either before or after Brexit, his gaze fixed on the subject of refugees living in Britain, but also the Northern working class, now living in a former shell of a once thriving mining town and taken to blaming immigrants for all their problems. Both sides are positioned as victims here, pushed together in states of disillusionment and left to get on with it in under a Tory government who couldn't care less. In fact, the way they've been treated, they're not so different from one another. If only they could see it, says the script.
TJ Ballantyne (former fireman Dave Turner) is a pub landlord living somewhere in the north east (the film was shot around Durham), whose tatty business is on the verge of collapse and who's navigating a low period after the death of his parents and a messy divorce. The Old Oak begins with a bus arriving full of Syrian refugees, who move into the villages' empty houses, only to be met right away with racist threats and a shocking act of violence. Welcome to England – a war zone of its own making.
After her camera is broken by a local thug, TJ befriends Yara (Ebla Mari), a twenty-something Syrian with whom he forges a father-like relationship, and who inspires him to acts of kindness, including the formation of a soup kitchen in the pub's disused back room. But trouble is brewing, as TJ's increasingly frustrated regulars spend their afternoons going on and on about their distain for their new neighbours. The film wonders, with very few subtle notes, whether TJ will stay silent or stand up for Yara and her family.
As TJ, Miller is understated but more inherently believable than most of the other cast members, wearing the problems of decades on his shoulders with a naturalism that mostly works. Mari, as Yara, is the highlight, though it’s a shame she isn’t developed more as a character beyond her interest in photography. Even without doing much, she looks to be acting on a different plain to her co-stars, who vary from “bad” to “we should not have invented cinema.” Counter to intent, the non-professionals cast here are supposed to increase the sense of realism, but mostly they detract from it because they simply don't speak or act like real people.
Still, Laverty’s increasingly misaligned ear for what dialogue actually sounds out – everything is spelt out in the simplest terms as to destroy nuance – can’t quite kill the overall good intentions or innate watchability of the piece. Loach's skill for framing and pacing shines through, and the movie plays as a tight and engaging in spite of its flaws – predictable, yes, but never quite off-putting, even if the ending lands like a Hollywood studio note rather than something truly kitchen-sink adjacent.
The material does occasionally dip its toes into what feels like misery porn (a sad sub-plot involving TJ's dog feels like overkill), and the use of abrupt fade-outs to finish scenes is odd and annoying. But there’s a genuine concern and a deeper optimism at the heart of this community tale – a sincere statement about the state of a nation – that keeps you on its side. If this is to be Loach’s last call, it’s not exactly groundbreaking, but it’s an apt way to round out what has been a long and remarkable career. To this we can only say: cheers.
The Old Oak was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch