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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

The Old Oak

A decade or so ago, the rumour was that Ken Loach was getting ready to quit. Then began a new parade of Conservative prime ministers in this country, each shiftier and more mediocre than the last; Loach decided he had more to say and do after all.

What followed was a blaze of energy, anger and productivity culminating in a remarkable late surge – in fact, a trilogy, of which The Old Oak might come to be seen as the final episode.

Working with his regular collaborator, the screenwriter Paul Laverty, Loach has been taking on issues and stories that you don’t see on the TV news and showed that film-makers could actually intervene in the real world. Loach got questions about poverty and austerity asked in parliament; he moved the dial.

Loach has also sought out the painful and unfashionable subjects, marching to where the gunfire has been loudest. With I, Daniel Blake it was the vivisectional experiment of austerity; with Sorry We Missed You it was the serfdom of the gig economy.

Now, in The Old Oak, it is that ugly phenomenon from which London’s liberal classes have turned away in sorrowing distaste: refugees housed in hostels all over the UK who are being abused and attacked by local people radicalised by social media.

But Loach does not attack the “deplorables” of the white working class; on the contrary. Thinking globally, acting locally, he treats them sympathetically; they are the same as their victims. Market forces and geopolitical interests have put them in the same position as the wretched Syrian incomers whom they have been encouraged to hate to feel good about themselves.

Pub landlord TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner) is suffering a Job-like ordeal: he is divorced and depressed with a grown-up son who doesn’t speak to him. The Old Oak is the name of his pub, the one community meeting place in a deprived north-eastern former mining town – and it is in dire need of refurbishment.

His regulars are seething with rage, livid at the collapse in house prices and brooding over YouTube videos about immigrants. They are seething at neighbouring properties being bought for a song by real estate companies and rented out exploitatively, thus collapsing the value of the homes they’d hoped would effectively cushion their retirement, and strip-mining value from the community. Then a busload of terrified Syrians arrive and the tension gets worse.

The film shows that TJ makes what is possibly a strategic mistake: angry white locals ask him to open up the pub’s long-dormant back room as a meeting place to air their grievances. He refuses, but tactlessly allows it to act as the venue for a food bank-style community supper for both locals and Syrians, including Yara (Ebla Mari). She is a young Syrian woman housed with her brother and elderly mother, desperate for news of her father, imprisoned by the Assad regime.

TJ finds a gentle friendship with her, sneeringly misinterpreted by some drinkers. There is a very moving scene where he takes her to see Durham Cathedral; she is deeply affected by listening to the choir and awed by the thousand-year-old building. She ponders the fact that she will never again see the temples at Palmyra, built by the Romans and destroyed by Islamic State. And Loach and Laverty fervently argue that through solidarity and a recognition of real interests, British people can naturally show empathy to immigrants and refugees.

As ever, Loach shows himself to be the John Bunyan of social realism – or perhaps the Gerrard Winstanley or William Everard of the cinema.

He is the fierce plain-speaker of political indignation with a style that is unironised and unadorned, shot by Robbie Ryan in simple daylit fashion, using first-timers and non-professionals in front of the camera. It is a film-making language utterly without the cynical twang that is de rigueur for everyone else. Thirty years ago, the mischief makers of Lars von Trier and Dogme 95 were talking about radical minimalism. They didn’t stick to it; Loach did. I hope that this isn’t Loach’s final film, but if it is, he has concluded with a ringing statement of faith in compassion for the oppressed.

The force remains strong in Ken Loach, aged 86 and delivering a film as fired up and human as any you’ll see this year. Likely to be his final film, it’s a fitting goodbye for this most empathetic chronicler of British society.

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