6 Dec 2023

Review: The Old Oak

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 6 December 2023

It has been a good year to be an 80+-year-old film director.

Martin Scorsese (81) picked up a New York Film Critics’ Circle Best Picture award for Killers of the Flower Moon last week, an important precursor for this summer’s awards season.

86-year-old Ridley Scott has an epic historical drama in cinemas and the critical consensus is that his director’s cut of Napoleon will be a marked improvement on the version that’s available right now.

Movie still from 2023 Ken Loach film The Old Oak

Photo: StudioCanal

Images were even released last month of a smiling 93-year-old Clint Eastwood back behind a camera, his next film stars Toni Collette and Nicholas Hoult and is a legal drama called Juror No. 2 which is due out next year.

And then there’s 87-year-old Ken Loach. I’ve lost count of the number of films of his that have crossed my path with the warning that “this is going be his last one” but here we are once again with a film that easily ranks with the very best of his work.

The Old Oak is a shabby and rundown pub in a former mining village in the North-East of England. It’s the only community facility left but as the town is slowly drained of opportunities, it too seems destined for the history books.

The publican, T.J. Ballantyne (Dave Turner) is a decent enough bloke but also fundamentally broken, like his pub.

Many of the empty houses in the community are being sold for a song to absentee landlords, reducing the property values for the locals, and others are being made available to resettled refugees.

When a coach load of Syrian survivors of civil war arrive T.J. is one of the few to make them feel welcome. But, as Margaret Thatcher knew all too well, sewing seeds of discontent among the dispossessed is the best way to ensure they don’t come after the powerful and others in the community think that the state should be doing something for them before offering a helping hand to strangers.

But the state is nowhere to be seen. Just the impact of their decisions on people who are powerless. The Syrian refugees didn’t choose civil war for themselves and their communities, it was forced upon them by the powerful.

The miners didn’t decide to close their own pits in 1984, to destroy their local economy and extinguish opportunities for their young people. Westminster did that, without ever even visiting.

Another interesting insight in The Old Oak is that everyone in the village knows who it was who scabbed during the 1984 strike.

It’s never been forgotten and the poison in the hearts of those who broke the strike has formed a different kind of scab. Their souls are calloused. They can’t access their empathy any longer, it’s just everyone for themselves.

I want to note the influence of Loach’s regular collaborator, the screenwriter Paul Laverty. He was a human rights advocate in Nicaragua during the war between the popularly elected Sandinistas and the American-backed Contras.

When he approached Loach in 1996, he had never written a screenplay before, and he’s hardly written for anyone else since.

I mihi to him because Loach’s style is so naturalistic that you barely feel the touch of the screenwriter at all but this long wonderful period of films that include My Name is Joe, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You wouldn’t exist without him.

In his latest book, Nick Cave describes hope as “optimism with a broken heart” and there are broken hearts all around The Old Oak. But there is also hope. I’m glad Loach found some of that.

Beautifully modulated at all times, The Old Oak is one of my favourite films of the year.

Loach directs these characters with respect – unobtrusively. There are barely any close-ups, he keeps a respectful distance, there’s nothing emotionally exploitative, but despite that I was still crying so hard I could barely make any notes.

It’s a film that acknowledges that all of us are but specks in the great scheme of things, but that we still have a choice about whether we make things a tiny bit better for others or a tiny bit worse.

The Old Oak is rated M for offensive language. The film is in select cinemas across the motu now.

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