Rumoured to be Ken Loach’s final film, The Old Oak finds his thirst for social justice, and ability to tell authentic working-class stories with skill, still working at full outraged, insightful throttle. A busload of Syrian refugees arrives in northeast England to a wave of abuse from locals, with photographer Yara (Ebla Mari)’s camera smashed by a man in a Newcastle United replica shirt. In steps Dave Turner, playing TJ Ballantyne – owner of The Old Oak pub, he offers to help repair the camera and forms a friendship with Yara and her family.
TJ is an even-handed, generous man, trying to help out but plagued by his own problems. His pub is barely surviving, populated by regulars who have nothing else to do but drown their sorrows and pontificate on their plight. Immigrants come in for abuse as the locals seek scapegoats; they wish to set up meetings that will inevitably pour fuel on racist hate.
When TJ finally does open up his unused backroom for a community food kitchen, to aid both the locals and the refugees, he finds himself facing ire. The backroom had been used during the 1980s miners’ strike for the same purpose, a glue to bind the community: if you eat together, you stick together. The refugees need feeding, as do starving local children ignored by central government, and that is what TJ sets out to rectify in his own small way.
An unapologetic clarion call to the power of community to overcome deprivation and hardship and challenge the narrative of hate and suspicion, The Old Oak is further bolstered by Turner’s warm central performance. Loach and regular writing partner Paul Laverty fashion a heartfelt tale that speaks to the moment and – as with 2016’s I, Daniel Blake – urges change from the politicians of Westminster. It may lack the occasional nuance, but it punches hard.
Moving and ultimately hopeful, The Old Oak continues Ken Loach’s canon of brilliantly observed social responsibility stories. If this is his swansong as a filmmaker, it is a worthy one.
Dir: Ken Loach (15, 113 mins)
The Old Oak is released on Fri 29 Sept
words KEIRON SELF