Film review: The Old Oak (2023)

Guy Shennan (SWU Member) and Angi Naylor (SWU Vice Chair) at the preview showing of The Old Oak film on August 15th, 2023.

Review from the preview showing of the (possibly) last film directed by Ken Loach. The Old Oak will be in theatres from 29th September 2023.

If this time this really is his last film (he has said this before), The Old Oak is the third in what will go down in posterity as Ken Loach’s great final North East trilogy, following I, Daniel Blake, and Sorry We Missed You. As with so much of Loach’s work since his pioneering BBC dramas of the mid-1960s, these films have depicted aspects of modern Britain not usually represented on our screens, big or small, resulting in indispensable documents of social injustice.

In The Old Oak, Loach turns his attention to the Syrian refugee crisis, telling the story of a group of Syrians who in 2016 come to stay in the midst of another devastated community, a former mining village in Durham, and at the heart of the film’s conflict are the tensions that can arise when one dispossessed group are confronted by another. As we saw following the Brexit vote, it is easy to fall prey to a liberal disapproval of unreconstructed attitudes in the industrial wastelands of the Midlands and the North, and this film’s main strength is that rather than indulge in such lazy cliche, Ken Loach and his closely knit team that includes screenwriter, Paul Laverty, show compassion to all sides. This includes those regulars in The Old Oak pub who resent the arrival of the Syrian refugees, as we are also shown how this has coincided with worries about collapsing house prices arising from empty properties being bought up by exploitative real estate companies – on top of the wreckage of their community caused by policies of successive Westminster governments.

The solidarity that can develop between two oppressed groups is shown initially in the relationship between The Old Oak’s landlord, T. J. Ballantyne – a great performance by former fire fighter, Dave Turner – and Yara, a young Syrian woman whose father has been imprisoned by the Assad regime, before which he had bequeathed her an old black and white camera that she carries with her everywhere.

One of the many connections the film makes is when T. J. shows Yara the disused back room of the pub, which has on its walls framed photographs showing scenes involving miners and the village’s old mine, including from the 1984-85 miners’ strike. Yara’s efforts to form relationships with the local residents are assisted by her camera and the photographs she takes of them. A social event is held in that same back room, with food cooked by the Syrians supported by trade union contributions. Many of Yara’s photos are presented in a slide show, much to the pleasure of the residents who attend given Yara’s ability to take such sympathetic portraits of them. This event was inspired in part by one of the photographs on the wall, labelled “When We Eat Together, We Stick Together”, which showed miners and their families eating a meal together during the 1980s strike, made from the communal strike fund. And when Marra, T. J.’s beloved dog, died, Yara’s family did what an Arab family does in such circumstances and cooked him a meal to support him in his grief.

In such ways, Ken Loach’s films show acts of solidarity in the face of the social injustices they document. At one point in The Old Oak, Yara said that when she looks through her camera, she sees hope, and one suspects the same to be true for Loach. He has provided us all with hope, by sticking together through close to 60 years with those individuals, groups and communities who have been the casualties of the heartless policies of contemporary capitalism, including the austerity of recent years that should be booted out never to return. We hope that as many social workers as possible will go to see this new and possibly last film by a great filmmaker. You will not be disappointed.

SWU General Secretary John McGowan is looking forwards to interviewing Ken Loach later this month, so stay tuned! We will hear insights from his film making career that has spanned over 60 years, including speaking about poverty in the UK and social work, in an exclusive interview with the Social Workers Union.

Reviewed by:

Guy Shennan – SWU Member

Angi NaylorSWU Vice Chair

Guy Shennan (SWU Member) and Angi Naylor (SWU Vice Chair) at the preview showing of The Old Oak film on August 15th, 2023.