The Old Oak (Kino Lorber, NR)

Things are not going well in the small northern English community where Ken Loach’s The Old Oak takes place. It used to be a prosperous mining town, but that’s decades in the past. The remaining residents have hung on to their homes and are trying to hang on to their community, but both are under stress from factors they don’t understand (and to be honest, they don’t really try). The latest blow—a real estate company in Cyprus is buying up houses in their community at one-fifth of their value, making it essentially impossible for them to sell without losing most of their investment—seems like just one more insult piled on top of the many injuries they’ve already suffered.

No question these people have been betrayed by the politicians who are supposed to look out for their interests, but that’s too abstract an analysis for them to grasp. Instead, they direct their anger towards a group of Syrian refugees who have recently moved into the area, treating them ways that are truly appalling and sometimes reminiscent of the abuses heaped on African American children who integrated public schools in the South.

P.J. Ballantyne (Dave Turner) is caught in the middle of it all. He runs the local pub that gives the film its name (in the process rather unsubtly recalling England’s ancient forests) and where a group of disgruntled locals meet regularly and bond over their grievances. P.J. is a nice guy with a cute dog who doesn’t hate the newcomers but is also mindful of the years of social bonds that make the town function, and also of the need to not alienate his regular customers, since he’s also, in his own words, “hanging on by his fingernails.”

When Yara (Ebla Mari), a young  Syrian woman whose camera was smashed by the particularly belligerent local racist Rocco (Neil Leiper),  asks T.J. if he knows the man who did it, he lies and says he does not. Later, after being caught in this lie, T.J. finds a workaround that doesn’t require confronting Rocco directly (which T.J. understands would be counterproductive), trading two of his late uncle’s cameras to a local shop to pay for repairs to Yara’s camera.

You can see from the start that Yara and P.J. are going to bond, but the surprise is that they initially do so over photography. In the pub’s long-unused back room, Yara sees photos of striking miners taken by P.J.’s uncle, and soon she and P.J. are sharing stories of community, oppression, and sticking together during hard times. The question remains whether anyone in town will join them, if the haters will retaliate if they do, and how it will all work out.

Using the power of photography to create a bridge between people with quite different life experiences is probably the most subtle thing in Paul Laverty’s screenplay, which is otherwise from the “subtext is for cowards” school of writing. Still, the general tenor of The Old Oak is in line with most of Loach’s later films, including the Palme d’Or winners The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) and I, Daniel, Blake (2016). I’ve long held out hope for something more like Kes (1969), but I have to admit at this point such hopes are probably in vain, particularly since Loach has said this will be his last film.  

The performances of Turner and Mari carry the film, with the performances of the many supporting roles existing on a continuum from fairly well-round rounded to outright caricature. The incidents of hatred directed against the Syrians, although no doubt true to life, come to feel repetitive without deepening understanding. On the plus side, The Old Oak provides a textbook portrayal of how misdirected anger can lead people to dig themselves deeper into a hole, while also making the point that other choices are available. | Sarah Boslaugh

The Old Oak is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber and is also available on several streaming platforms.

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