With The Old Oak, Ken Loach depicts an ode to hope, a strong reminder of how crucial solidarity and community can be.
Just before watching Ken Loach’s The Old Oak, the morning of the last day of the Cannes Film Festival, I suddenly realised I had yet to watch a movie I would give five stars to. Thankfully, that was soon to change. A timely feature that speaks to the current political situation, Ken Loach’s latest movie moved me – and the rest of the cinema, judging my everybody’s faces when I walked out – to tears.
The Old Oak is set in Durham County in the North East of England, as evidenced by both the authentic accent of the English characters and the shots of Durham towards the end of the film. The focal centre of the town, and subsequently of the movie, is the local titular pub, The Old Oak, owned by TJ Bannatyne (Dave Turner) who struggles to stay afloat during economic uncertainty. As the film begins, the town, previously a mining community that has now plunged into poverty, faces rising tension when Syrian refugees are placed in local homes. While this is met with resistance by the locals, Bannatyne grows closer with Yara (Ebla Mari), one of the refugees, and her family, as they organize a food initiative to help the town community.
Much like Bannatyne and the food initiative give hope to the town, The Old Oak is a beacon of hope in an otherwise cruel and vicious world where, as suggested by the movie, people have to choose between affording heating or food in one of the richest countries in the world. In fact, The Old Oak deals with the question of Syrian refugees and with the growing poverty in the UK. What is most impressive about the plot of the film is how it is able to give equal dignity to both issues. As such, the movie manages to poignantly speak to the current issues of the British political scenario more specifically and the whole world at large.
A lot could be said about The Old Oak’s beautiful cinematography, excellent acting, and marvellous directing, all of which make this story come to life, but what really stands out the most in the film is the humanity that shines throughout. It is a beautiful reminder of what a community is and can be, regardless of country of origin, religion, or skin colour. The Old Oak is a magnificent portrayal of the actual power we have to change things when we come together as one instead of fighting a war between those that struggle even more than we do.
It is also important to underline that the people who play Syrian refugees in the film are actual Syrian refugees in real life. Similarly, Syrian families have also contributed to the film in terms of research for the movie and the footage that we see at the end of the film. The collaboration with the Syrian refugee community is perhaps the key to the beautiful masterpiece that The Old Oak is. It also allows Syrian voices to be heard, and it enables them to reclaim the narrative around immigration, which is especially relevant in an age where islamophobia seems to be running rampant across national borders.
With The Old Oak, Ken Loach proves that we do have the power to do something to change our reality, whether it is through art, protest, or any other form of solidarity. As the credits roll, my wish cannot help but be that this movie will ignite change and inspire those who watch it to make the change possible. And while this is said to be Ken Loach’s last film, I for one truly hope that the director will have more to say in the future and more heartbreakingly beautiful films that never fail to comment on our society.
The Old Oak premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and will be released in UK cinemas on September 29, 2023.