sat 18/05/2024

The Old Oak review - a searing ode to solidarity | reviews, news & interviews

The Old Oak review - a searing ode to solidarity

The Old Oak review - a searing ode to solidarity

Syrian refugees polarise Durham villagers in Ken Loach's affecting drama

No bar to friendship: Dave Turner and Ebla Mari in 'The Old Oak'Sixteen Films

Ken Loach has occasionally invested his realist TV dramas and movies with moments of magical realism – football inspiring them in The Golden Vision (1968) and Looking for Eric (2009) – but magical spaces in them are rare. In The Old Oak, as affecting a movie as any the veteran director has made and his 14th with screenwriter Paul Laverty, three sacred spaces (but a single church) work on the characters in vital ways. 

One is the beach where the depressed Tommy Joe Ballantyne (Dave Turner), who runs a dying East Durham pit village’s surviving pub, encountered the stray dog that diverted him from drowning himself – his subsequent adoption of it giving him a fresh lease on life, as he explains in a flashback. Another is the eponymous pub’s sealed back room, which TJ reopens as an eating place for newly arrived Syrian refugees and impoverished locals alike. 

Then there is Durham Cathedral, where Yara (Ebla Mari), a refugee T.J. has befriended, is moved by the atmosphere. She experiences not the kind of epiphany that stirs a sense of transnational affinity in the G.I. visiting Canterbury Cathedral in Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944), however, but memories of the carnage and destruction the Islamic State visited on Palmyra.

The back room becomes a contested territory. After much grumbling about the foreign interlopers by the pub's regulars, three of them, including TJ’s onetime best friend (Trevor Fox), ask him to let them host a protest meeting there. Mining family members exhausted by four decades of unemployment and deprivation, their homes devalued during the 2007 recession, they are outraged by their further devaluation as a result of private contractors profiteering from the sale of old pit cottages to the organisations housing the refugees. 

Though barely hanging on to his dilapidated boozer and almost broken in spirit, TJ is too decent a man to bow to these Brexit-y malcontents and opts to restore the room, which formerly served as a canteen for the pit families during the 1984 strike, as a place that can benefit all (pictured above). Though neither political nor charismatic like the James Gralton (Barry Ward) of Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall (2014), TJ is touched by the same fellow-feeling that prompted the Irish socialist leader to revive his Pearse–Connolly Hall as a Co. Leitrim community centre in the early 1930s.

The retired firefighter Turner, who played the mouthy Newcastle United fan in Loach's Sorry We Missed You (2019), makes acting and being indissoluble as TJ sheds some of his sorrow. An acting teacher from the Golan Heights, Mari is admirably restrained as a woman who has witnessed the unspeakable, though terror lingers in her eyes.

Yara, her younger siblings, and their mother – whose husband has disappeared in Syria – have been dispersed with other refugees to the backwaters of the north-east by the Home Office. Compassionate local organizers like Laura (warmly played by the Sunderland anti-racism activist Claire Rodgerson), helped by TJ, have volunteered to settle the newcomers in TJ’s village.

Yara has been off the bus only a few seconds when the prized camera she used to take photos of the refugee camps is knocked from her hands by a belligerent drunk in a Newcastle shirt. Embarrassed for the village, TJ later invites Yara to his back room to show her the photos of the striking miners and their kin on the walls and to offer to have her camera fixed.

Yara's fascination with the photos creates a bond between them. Their platonic friendship is even more understated than the unspoken father-daughter relationship that evolves between the childless widowed carpenter Daniel (Dave Johns) and the single mother of two Katie (Hayley Squires) who's been removed from London to Newcastle by the social services in I, Daniel Blake (2016), the first part of the unofficial trilogy Loach filmed in the north-east.

TJ’s decision to feed the Syrians and the locals in the pub builds bridges between the two communities but reckons without the racist jealousy and hatred of the few. A spiteful act of sabotage occurs and TJ considers throwing in the towel. But then news from Syria lifts the film onto another plane.

Following Sorry We Missed You, The Old Oak concludes the trilogy. These films are leavened by less humour than Loach and Laverty brought to their previous collaborations and most of those Loach made with writers like Nell Dunn, Neville Smith, Jim Allen, and Barry Hines. (Pictured above: Ebla Mari, Dave Turner)

Though the door-to-door encounters of the stressed delivery driver (Kris Hitchens) and the graffiti raids made by his and his wife's adolescent son and his crew brought fleeting situational humour to the otherwise despairing Sorry We Missed You, only Daniel’s and Katie’s generosity – and Daniel’s desperate spray-canned act of resistance – preserved I, Daniel Blake from tragedy until it couldn’t. There can be nothing to laugh about in a filthy rich capitalist nation where food banks are a growth industry feeding close to three million and refugees from torture and mass murder are considered a nuisance.

In lieu of humor, The Old Oak champions empathy, unity, unconditional kindness, the exotic idea of communal sharing, the solidarity of ordinary people wherever they come from, a little hope. It’s a magical space in itself.

In Durham Cathedral, Yara experiences memories of the carnage and destruction the Islamic State visited on Palmyra


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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