The Old Oak: 'It’s not charity, it’s solidarity'

February 20, 2024
Film director Ken Loach on set
Director Ken Loach on the set of 'The Old Oak'. Photo: Joss Barratt, Sixteen Films

The Old Oak
Directed by Ken Loach
Written by Paul Laverty
In cinemas and streaming now

I had never seen a Ken Loach film before but after my partner suggested seeing The Old Oak at the cinema, I wondered why I had missed all the others.

At 87 years of age, Loach says this film will be his last, although he reportedly said much the same before making I, Daniel Blake in 2016.

Loach’s first film was Kes, about a boy and his falcon. I read the book at school a long time ago. Kes was judged the 7th best British film of the 20th century by the British Film Institute and the 4th best British film ever made by Time Out.

In all Loach has made 28 films, 30 productions for television and four documentaries.

Loach’s socialism shines through his work as well as his personal life. In June 2009, Loach and co-creators Paul Laverty and Rebecca O'Brien withdrew their film Looking For Eric from the Melbourne International Film Festival after it declined to withdraw sponsorship from the Israeli Embassy.

Loach also declined an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1977 saying, “It's all the things I think are despicable: patronage, deferring to the monarchy and the name of the British Empire, which is a monument of exploitation and conquest. I turned down the OBE because it's not a club you want to join when you look at the villains who've got it.

In 2012, Loach turned down the Turin Festival Award when he learnt that the National Museum of Cinema had outsourced cleaning and security services after dismissing workers who opposed a wage cut, in addition to raising allegations of intimidation and harassment.

Loach is arguably the most successful director in the history of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival having won 10 awards there. He also won awards at the Venice and Berlin Film Festivals, a BAFTA, BIFA and others.

Loach has made the social realism genre his own and I, Daniel Blake (2016), Sorry We Missed You (2019) and now The Old Oak form a loose trilogy inspired by successive Tory governments and England’s downward slide into despair under their leadership.

Social realism depicts a realistic, and at times critical, depiction of working-class life and Loach has explored this genre his whole life, telling tales of working class people in Britain.

The Old Oak explores a dying northern English village following the arrival of several Syrian refugee families and the xenophobia they face from the locals.

Publican Tommy (TJ) Ballantyne is a nice guy who befriends refugee Yara almost against his will, only to find his pub regulars and friends are turning against the refugees and him as well.

TJ teams up with aid worker Laura — a volunteer who is trying to scrounge enough money, food and everyday items to let the new families set up homes — to come up with a plan to try and unite the two hard-done-by communities.

TJ’s moment of realisation comes when he discovers he can’t just hide behind his bar serving beer, hoping matters will go past him without any effect. He decides to do the right thing even when it is seemingly against his best interest.

There’s clearly right and wrong in the film but also a plea for understanding. Things don’t go to plan, but there’s enough hope in the ending to make you think it could go well in the future.

My partner said to bring the tissues and I’m glad I did. I will certainly be watching more of Loach’s creations after this excellent introduction to his body of work.

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