Cannes Film Festival


The Old Oak

four stars

Premiering in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, The Old Oak marks the latest – and quite possibly last – feature from veteran firebrand Ken Loach. Scripted by Paul Laverty, his regular Scottish scribe, in what is their 14th collaboration, it’s another highly-charged drama that completes a loose trilogy with Loach’s last two films, the Cannes-winning I, Daniel Blake (2016) and Sorry We Missed You (2019).

Like those, this takes place in England’s northeast, in a former mining community, beset with poverty that has seemingly been ignored by successive governments. Or as one character so pithily puts it: “This has now become a dumping ground.” Like the food banks seen in I, Daniel Blake and the zero hour contracts in Sorry We Missed You, Loach and Laverty are canny at spotlighting how Britain is fraying at the seams.

Set in 2016, The Old Oak is a rundown pub, with landlord TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner) “hanging on” by his fingertips. The regulars that do come bemoan their lot, especially when Syrian refugees arrive. Among them is Yara (Ebla Mari), who first crosses paths with TJ after a drunken local smashes her camera. On the quiet, TJ helps fix her device, but behind the bar, he keeps silent when the locals – including his old classmate Charlie (Trevor Fox) – turn their vitriol on Yara and the other Syrians.

This late-era Loach isn’t exactly subtle, and Laverty’s script throws a lot against the peeling wall to see what sticks. Racism, below-the-breadline poverty, the devastation of the miners' strike, and how it split families, are all covered. There’s even a heartfelt moment with a dog. But Loach’s battle-cry is a call-to-arms for communities to come together and help each other in moments of crisis. “We understand loss,” Yara’s mother tells TJ at one point, and The Old Oak is a story about a pain shared is a pain halved.

Turner, who graduates from smaller roles in Loach’s last two films to the lead, anchors the film with an emotionally wrought turn. Likewise, newcomer Mari gives a distinct performance, although the film is occasionally let down by some of the non-professionals, who aren’t always top-notch. Yet for all its rough edges, it’s a film with genuine heart and hope, right up to the very final shot of a peaceful march through the streets of Durham promoting solidarity.

It’s certainly not Loach’s most powerful work, and it occasionally leans towards the didactic, but it’s heartening to see that, at 86, he’s fighting the good fight. The film’s use of Yara’s photographs, snapped around the local community, express as much about Loach as her. From his very earliest works until The Old Oak, his humble interest in people has never wavered. If this truly is to be his last feature, his humanity and sense of political conviction will be sorely missed.