‘The Old Oak’: Another masterwork from Ken Loach
Old Oak

Ken Loach’s current film The Old Oak is yet another timeless masterwork from one of cinema’s greatest directors.

Loach, who just celebrated his 88th birthday, is one of the few filmmakers to have won the prestigious Cannes Festival’s coveted Palme d’Or award for Best Film twice. More of his films have been nominated for the top prize than those of any other director. The Old Oak was nominated for best picture of the year at both Cannes and by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

Although its director has been at work in the industry for over 60 years, the film’s themes are as current as any in today’s news cycle. Refugees from the Syrian wars are resettled into an economically depressed North England mining town. Class and ethnic conflicts quickly surface, along with related economic problems exacerbated by the rightwing British government.

The few customers in TJ Ballantyne’s pub are openly hostile to the Syrian newcomers. Racist taunts and fights break out. The refugees are beaten and told to go back to their country of origin, though their homes have been destroyed there and their lives threatened.

The older Anglos can think only of themselves, blaming the immigrant “ragheads” for the depressed economy of their north country. “Our way of life is gone forever,” they lament, conveniently ignoring that their way of life was closed down by the Thatcher government’s closure of mines and attack on workers, their unions, and benefits.

One young woman refugee, Yara, does strike up a friendship with pub owner Ballantyne. As he gets to know her family, bonds form. They share food and ideas on how to make The Old Oak better serve the community, old and new. Ballantyne even reopens the pub’s sacred, under-utilized backroom in order to help young people in the village.

At 113 minutes, The Old Oak often plays like a documentary. Its themes of migration, cultural conflicts, and organizing to solve problems are familiar. Loach has visited them in earlier films like Jimmys Hall, where the actual building plays a crucial role in working-class organizing to improve the community. Loach’s film stirs his characters into the physical structure showing how solidarity is built out of the needs and abilities of his mix of situation and dramatis personae.

The narrative is quite linear and predictable. Dave Turner as TJ Ballantyne and Elba Mari as Yara are audience-engaging as principals. Loach’s customary use of local non-actors as well as professionals in supporting roles is a bit of a mix. The director works out of his belief that working-class struggles are inherently dramatic and can best be expressed through actual non-professionals. Inexperienced though some of the players might be, they generally carry the action quite well. And certainly, the pub well fits its historic condition and use!

Director Loach has spoken often on his belief that working people are on the front lines of the Class War. If he and his longtime collaborator, writer Paul Laverty, are stepping away from their filmic contributions, Loach will have left a monumental legacy for understanding this conflict. Although it may not be among his finest, The Old Oak is a creation worthy of carrying the message of Loach’s life work. Salute!

The trailer can be viewed here.

The Old Oak is currently in theaters as well as live streaming.

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Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.