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MOVIES: The Old Oak - Review

The austerity trilogy that shined a spotlight on social issues in the UK that the Tory government continues to ignore on a basis bordering on parody comes to an end in Ken Loach’s The Old Oak, the ultimate conclusion that has spanned I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You, the former of which triggered a massive storm in politics when it was made widely available. Loach’s movies are devastating: uniquely timely yet universal – the strong themes of unity, togetherness – and the fight against racism have never been more apparent. He hones in on a small working class village in the North of England, 2016 – that has just seen Syrian refuges arrive. There’s resentment from the locals – one wearing the local football team’s shirt breaks a refugees’ camera after she takes photos of him. The locals, burdened by poverty and left behind by the government – are xenophobic and would prefer to poke down at those they believe to be less than them rather than trying to make life better for themselves.

Pub landlord TJ (played by a loveable but battle-scarred Dave Turner) is doing the best he can to get involved in delivering supply runs to the refugees. But his pub that he works for hosts the racists that open with sentences like “look after your own” and “I’m not racist, but…”, following it up with something that’s ten times more racist than any normal person would say. He develops an unlikely bond with Ebla Mari’s Yara, the refugee who had her camera smashed, as she’s trying to keep it together and lose her cool in front of the younger members of her family in her father’s absence.

Loach tells life as it is: there’s no happy ending, no redemption; no easy victory – those used to cinema telling stories may view The Old Oak as unfulfilling, there is no victory. But then divided – there is no victory against hate. Strength. Solidarity. Resistance – that encourages survival – the banner that’s proudly displayed in the Old Oak, the pub that TJ calls home – and Loach finds a way to bring up the past and tie the struggles of the miners’ and the closing down of the pits under the Thatcherite Government with the struggles of the Syrian Refugees under the Tory government today. It’s a damning indictment of those with small; inside-views – to view this as “just another Ken Loach social realism drama” is underselling the point of the whole thing: it’s one of his finest works in years, devastating and heartbreaking in equal measure. This is a film with more empathy and heart than those on the right will ever have – and the good intentions The Old Oak has puts everything in cinema to shame.

Sorry We Missed You gave us a rallying cry: The Old Oak is an emphasis on togetherness overcoming hatred and solidarity. No wonder Loach tied the struggles of the present day with that of the miners’ strike: it’s soulful, hopeful and almost – against everything, despite everything – optimistic in the peak of despair; a lot of fiction has come out addressing the moment of 2016 recently – I look at Eliza Clark’s Penance as another example, a state-of-the-nation thriller novel, yet The Old Oak is the most optimistic: harmony, equality – these are ideals that Loach has spent his entire career campaigning towards.

There’s powerful understated brilliance in the nuance of Dave Turner, who puts in great work with few words spoken. You see Turner portraying TJ breaking down and shutting down after a horrific thing happens to him: you see the community responding in turn; positively and negatively. Facebook is shown, rightly – as a place where people go to spew hatred anonymously, and how people’s views change and are blinkered overtime as they fall deeper and deeper into hatred and resentment is touched on here. Yet ultimately the triumph of togetherness and solidarity despite this, and Loach’s love letter to the unions – makes a strong showcase for this film being a rewarding watch. If he were American, or even French – you’d be talking about this trilogy as one of the best things cinema has ever been.

The Old Oak is available in UK Cinemas now.

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