The Old Oak (2023)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Ken Loach
Run Time
1 hour and 53 minutes
Not Rated

VP Content Ratings

Sex & Nudity
Star Rating
★★★★★5 out of 5

Relevant Quotes

They have distributed freely; they have given to the poor;
    their righteousness endures forever;
    their horn is exalted in honor.

Psalm 112:9
Yara shows her broken camera to TJ. (c) Zeitgeist Films

Films like Ken Loach’s The Old Oak are why I am still so passionate about well-crafted films, especially those dealing with the down and out, those oppressed by the powerful. His latest protest parable, written by frequent collaborator Paul Laverty, celebrates those victimized by a series of UK conservative powers during the latter years of the 20th century, as well as relating to the xenophobia directed at immigrants in so many countries today. In this film the refugee-hating locals are not cast as villains, “deplorables,” but are shown as victims themselves of outside exploiters, politicians and wealthy entrepreneurs.

The film’s title refers to the run-down pub of the same name, located in a village near Durham in the north of the U.K.  TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner) is the long-time owner, barely hanging on, so he has not been able to make any repairs in years, the area being blighted when the coal mines were shut down in the 1980s by the government. It is the only pub left in the village, as well as the only gathering place after the loss of the hall of the village church. A late-middle-aged, divorced father, he lives alone except for his little dog which he dotes on. He is often depressed because his son refuses to have any contact with him. TJ’s whole life revolves around serving pints to the dwindling number of regular customers who gather there to gawk and talk. He does, however, assist  Laura (Claire Rodgerson), a compassionate local woman who uses his van, and sometimes, his driving skills, to deliver used furniture, clothing, and food to the Syrian refugees moving into the area.

Much of the tavern talk is about the foreigners whom the government has transported and dumped there without any notification to the villagers because housing is so cheap there. Currently the regular patrons are griping because distant speculators have bought several houses for a fraction of what they once paid and are making great profit from renting them out to the newcomers from Syria arriving by the busload. The native homeowners, who paid more than five times the current market value are worried about their future.

Young Yara [Ebla Mari] is one of the Syrian newcomers, accosted by a local tough resentful of her snapping a picture as she arrives in a coach. He snatches at her camera and then drops it, damaging the lens. She boldly enters the Old Oak and asks TJ if he knows the man in stripes (referring to her attacker’s cricket jersey). He is noncommittal, but when later she finds and confronts the unrepentant culprit, she returns to talk with TJ because the thug had refused to pay for its repair. Something about her appeals to TJ—she speaks very god English and refuses to wear a hijab. He asks her to come with him to look at something in the pub’s large back room.

Filled with a lot of cast-offs, the room is still a visible shrine to the coal miners who went out on a difficult strike back in the 80s. The walls are covered with large, captioned photographs that recall that stirring event. Yara is fascinated by the photographs, asking questions about them. TJ pulls out a box, showing the girl three cameras once owned by his grandfather. She turns down his offer of any one of her them, telling him her camera has special meaning and cannot be replaced. He then offers to take two of them to sell for the cost of repairing hers—if she will trust him. She scarcely hesitates before accepting his offer, thus beginning a warm friendship that will impact both the natives and the newcomers.

She introduces TJ to her family, her mother and younger sister. The father is still in Syria, a prisoner of the regime, so they do not know if he is dead or alive. She reveals that her camera is irreplaceable to her because it had been a gift from her father. Her dream is to become a photojournalist, traveling the world. She is fascinated by the wall display of photographs in his back room, especially the section with the caption “When you eat together, you stick together.” TJ reveals that it was a frequent saying of his mother. From this they conceive the project of turning the disused room into a dining area where locals and refugees can eat together and thus get to know and understand each other.

Volunteers gather to clean the decrepit room. An electrician and a plumber work to restore power and water to the old kitchen. Soon Syrians and townspeople led by Laura are bringing food and accompanying conviviality to the old place. The lunches are offered free to all, locals and newcomers. Yara circulates among the diners, taking pictures of the mingling people. A spirit of hope arises despite all their problems ad the fragility of the room.

Not everyone is happy over the lively development. Regular customer Charle and his cohorts glower, looking on from the barroom with displeasure. Their anger is kindled because TJ earlier had rejected their request to hold a meeting in the hall objecting to the arrival of the foreigners. They regard TJ’s refusal as a betrayal of his own kind. They strike one night, damaging the facility so greatly that the lunches come to a halt because of the hall’s unsafe condition.

Despair permeates the villagers. And then Yara and her family receive tragic news from Syria that galvanizes both the local villagers and the Syrian communities. A lump-in-the-throat-creating scene ensues of shared sympathy and compassion. The film ends with a street march of hope and solidarity, highlighted by a large banner with “The Old Oak” proudly held aloft. Earlier Syrian craftsperson’s had created and presented it to TJ.

This film, that humanizes both refugees and natives who resent them, is filled with memorable scenes. Two of my favorites are when a pit bull kills TJ’s beloved little dog, leaving him all alone. Yara and her mother show up on his doorstep bearing dishes of Syrian food for him. Eating it in their presence, he is as grateful for their sympathy as for its delicious taste. The second is when TJ takes Yara to see the famous Durham Cathedral a short distance from the village. Yara is awed by its thousand-year-old beauty and by the haunting music as the choir rehearses. She reflects on how it took so many skilled people working together to create the building. She also is reminded of the ancient shrines back in her own country that were dynamited by the image-hating Taliban. As she sits in a cathedral pew with TJ, she observes,” It takes strength to build something beautiful.” And so it does for an 87-year-old director and his writer to make such a beautiful film! This is a “must-see” film for peacemakers!

This review will be in the June issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store. Also, be sure to see my article on the other Ken Loach films reviewed in these pages.


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