The Old Oak: Ken Loach’s final cinematic statement is a stark portrait of a divided UK

A landlord of a failing pub in County Durham befriends a Syrian refugee and attempts to quell tensions between their two communities in this sobering film that may well be Loach’s last.

Ebla Mari as Yara in The Old Oak (2023)

Ken Loach, veteran of a formidable six-decade career in British film and television, has stated that The Old Oak may well be his last film. It is also the concluding part to a loose north-eastern trilogy of films in which middle-aged Geordies are bullied by Tory Britain and late capitalism. In I, Daniel Blake (2016), the austerity benefits system dehumanises the eponymous hero. In Sorry We Missed You (2018), delivery jobs and zero-hours contracts prove a tyranny rather than an opportunity. The Old Oak is a film about a man who has come to the end of his tether; he has lost his family but is hanging on to his livelihood and his community by a thread. Deprivation has bred division in his local streets and in the boozer he runs in a dying pit village in County Durham. In a community weakened by hostility and opposition, this is a film about giving up as much as fighting back. It sometimes feels like a melancholy warning against hope, the false promise of a better future.

Early on, as Dave Turner’s T.J. sighs in exasperation and attempts once again to reposition the ‘K’ wobbling off the end of the sign on the titular pub, it’s impossible to forget that this may be Loach’s last cinematic statement. The desaturation of a final image that might otherwise signify the rebirth of collective spirit suggests at least a return to origins. Here, as in Loach’s campaigning Wednesday Play Cathy Come Home (1966), housing is the heart of the matter, but these concerns are very different – when Syrian refugees are bussed in, and terraces sold to developers for a pittance, the locals are roused to malevolence. T.J. washes his hands of the fight, until a local community organiser and one of the refugees, a young photographer named Yara (Ebla Mari), remind him of how the village broke bread together during the 1984 miners’ strike, in another lifetime. But can solidarity heal the bigotry that breeds online and in bellies full of bitter(ness)?

This is a sobering film indeed. While Loach’s films typically offer some relief in levity, there’s precious little humour here. T.J.’s dog Marra gambols on the beach, a splash of cheer, but narratively speaking, Loach taught us not to get too attached to pets as long ago as Kes (1969). The Old Oak seems to promise a moment of transcendence as Yara and T.J. attend an afternoon choir rehearsal at Durham Cathedral, but Loach purposefully swerves it, and Yara is reminded of the ruins of Palmyra. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan denies us a healing beam of light through the stained glass; the angelic choir is kept at a distance.

The Old Oak (2023)

At worst, this film may engender the compassion fatigue that plagues T.J.. Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty pile on the misery, with even offscreen characters suffering severe poverty and isolation. But while the dialogue spoken by the non-professional cast is sometimes a little stilted, the stories ring sadly true. There is a glimmer of optimism: while the older men of the village are stuck in the past, mulling over the mining days as they drift towards prejudice (the most virulent bigot is, pointedly, the son of a scab), the women and children are more tolerant. The paragon of the younger generation is Yara, an exceptional photographer, fluent in English, who fearlessly attempts to bridge social divides. Her pictures capture the violent rage of her new neighbours on her first arrival, and then, once she has settled, more intimate images of friendship. She emphasises that this is by design: she tells T.J. that she framed her Syrian photographs in a way that emphasises hope and strength, after she had witnessed the horrors of war without a filter. Similarly, old pictures in the pub romanticise the strike, while its failure is evident everywhere else.

Is the unity that the villagers find in The Old Oak more than fleeting? Many come together to eat at T.J.’s community kitchen, or for a rare night of revelry at the pub, or in a gesture of shared grief, and again at the Durham Miners’ Gala, but the saboteurs remain in place. The film is set in the summer of 2016: the Brexit vote that also overshadowed these months is not mentioned, though a ‘Take Britain back’ slogan is exposed for its essential racism on an online chatboard. This film, backed by a mix of British, French and Belgian funds, is already as stark a portrait of a broken, divided UK as you’ll find. If this is Loach’s last word, it is a damning one.

 ► The Old Oak is in UK cinemas from September 29.