Cinema: The Old Oak - angry and humane, a very fine film

The Old Oak -  Ebla Mari as Yara and Dave Turner as TJ Ballantyne (contributed pic)The Old Oak -  Ebla Mari as Yara and Dave Turner as TJ Ballantyne (contributed pic)
The Old Oak - Ebla Mari as Yara and Dave Turner as TJ Ballantyne (contributed pic)
The Old Oak (15), (113 mins), Cineworld Cinemas.

No one depicts the ugliest, the most brutal and the most appalling human behaviour quite as grimly and compellingly as director Ken Loach does. The other side of the coin, though, is that where he offers hope, he does so with equal power, heart-breakingly and hauntingly. The Old Oak is a film clearly conceived in absolute fury, but Loach’s genius is to find a way to offer us a glimmer of hope even when he’s showing us humanity at its most despicable.

The Old Oak itself is the decaying pub in a dying mining community, a pub so moribund that landlord TJ Ballantyne (beautifully, movingly played by Dave Turner) has to hook the loose K in its name plate up every day with a stick; so moribund that the big community room where community used to be celebrated was locked up and abandoned 20 years ago. Amid isolation and extreme poverty, it’s a place where hatred, the blame game and resentment fester – and when a group of Syrian refugees move in, it finds its target.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Among the paltry few pub-goers there is a small group that spouts the venom, the kind of people who preface their filth with “I’m no racist, but…”, who insist “I’ve not nothing against refugees” before venting the foulest views.

TJ, however, has clung on to his kindness, and somehow he manages to connect with Yara (superb from Ebla Mari), one of the refugees. His instinct is simply to be kind – and so they are drawn together, not in any romantic sense but in a way that hints at all that might be possible for the rest of them. Their relationship is tenderly, fascinatingly painted as slowly hope starts to flicker.

TJ starts to see the parallels with the strength in adversity which the community found during the miners’ strike. Photographs of that great sense of togetherness adorn the walls of the shut-off back room. The haters want that back room for a meeting aimed at throwing the refugees out; TJ senses finer possibilities. Which is when the haters respond in the most hateful way imaginable.

It’s the toughest watch from a director who has never set out to be easy. When TJ divulges his own back story of loss and despair, you start to realise why he has got the compassion he has. There is a truly beautiful scene too in Durham Cathedral where Yara reflects on the journey she too has made – and on a world that refuses to see what is happening.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Again it is all about connection, the connection between them and a connection you start to hope will eventually prove contagious no matter how ghastly the behaviour around them.

Loach is terrific at hinting at the reasons the haters hate; but even more powerfully he shows the potential for good that will flow simply and inevitably from togetherness.

With a cast of mostly non-actors, of course, there is unevenness – but in a way that adds to it all. You wouldn’t want polish on a tale as raw as this one. It’s a very fine piece of cinema, provocative, angry and deeply humane.

Dave Turner gives us a superb portrait of human decency in the face of awful odds; Ebla Mari is every bit as impressive. It’s the kind of film which is required viewing – and also exceptionally rewarding viewing.