Ken Loach's The Old Oak: solidarity and hope amid rubble of broken Britain

Ebla Mari as Yara in The Old Oak
Ebla Mari as Yara in The Old Oak
Dave Turner and Ebla Mari in The Old Oak
Dave Turner and Ebla Mari in The Old Oak

THE OLD OAK (15, 113mins) Drama.

Starring: Dave Turner, Ebla Mari, Trevor Fox, Debbie Honeywood, Chris McGlade, Claire Rodgerson, Jordan Louis, Chrissie Robinson.

Director: Ken Loach

HEARTBREAKING and heartwarming in equal measure, Ken Loach's The Old Oak is another vivid snapshot of England on the skids from the veteran socially conscious director and his regular screenwriting collaborator, Paul Laverty.

It forms the final part of a loose trilogy of films which began with the austerity-eviscerating I, Daniel Blake and continued with 'gig economy' exposé Sorry We Missed You, both of which drew their dramatic power from characters struggling against a Tory-engineered system seemingly tailor-made to drive ordinary working people to their wits' end and beyond.

Set in 2016, The Old Oak centres on a left-behind working class community near Durham and its mixed reaction to an influx of Syrian refugees who are unexpectedly being housed in their midst.

Initially, the traumatised families arriving with only the clothes on their backs are treated with suspicion and outright aggression by some of the locals in the former mining village, blighted by long-term unemployment since the pit closures over 30 years previously.

Literally the moment she arrives, Yara (excellent newcomer Ebla Mari) gets into an altercation with a lager-swilling, Newcastle United-shirt clad guy who immediately starts spouting the predictable "why don't you go back where you came from?" line without a hint of irony, given his strong Scottish accent.

Ebla Mari as Yara in The Old Oak
Ebla Mari as Yara in The Old Oak

Local pub landlord TJ (Loach regular Dave Turner, in fine form here) intervenes when things get physical – thus forming a bond with Yara which puts him at odds with some of his regulars at The Old Oak, like Charlie (Trevor Fox), a lifelong friend who's become bitter and jaded at the cards life has dealt him and now views any outsiders with extreme distrust – especially those receiving 'hand-outs'.

The Oak is a faded hostelry that's just about clinging on as its downtrodden clientele drink their dole beneath photo portraits of their proud fathers – the miners who once assembled en masse in the pub's long-shuttered back room to receive community meals in defiance of the Thatcher government which weaponised hunger at the height of the miner's strike.

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TJ is from mining stock: he was raised to believe in the power of solidarity – though it's been years since the village had anything approaching a community spirit, and his own personal problems have left him feeling isolated.

However, TJ is trying hard to retain his dignity and human compassion: each morning, he takes the time to physically reset the broken signage outside the Oak with the aid of a brush handle. He dotes on his little dog, Marra, and he makes time to help local charity worker Laura (Claire Rodgerson) with the use of his van for collecting and delivering donations for the refugees.

TJ can't help but take an interest in Yara and her family as they await news on her father, missing and feared dead, because it's the right thing to do. Meanwhile, others in the village ignore the refugees' plight as they grow more and more resentful in a downward spiral of distrust driven by vicious social media postings.

As Charlie and co begin to make disgruntled noises about organising 'meetings' at the pub, which in their twisted view is becoming like "a bloody refugee camp", Yara has a plan to bring both 'sides' of the struggling village together at The Old Oak in a manner honouring TJ's mother's old adgage, "when you eat together, you stick together", now etched on the wall beneath those evocative miners' strike photos.

When the inevitable conflict erupts, TJ's resolve to do what's right is severely tested.

Ebla Mari as Yara in The Old Oak
Ebla Mari as Yara in The Old Oak

Loach and Laverty are careful to ensure we understand that the British characters in the film who instantly take against their new Syrian neighbours – "we've become a dumping ground, you don't see them being housed in Chelsea do you?", is how one man puts it – do so as a result of suffering years of economic neglect.

However, the message of their fine, engrossing and inspirational human drama is clear: while 'scraping off' and punching down is a quick and easy option, it creates nothing except further fear, resentment and isolation. Coming together to build up something new, on the other hand, requires patience, compromise and understanding – yet everyone can benefit from a collective effort.

It's a lesson broken Britain would do well to heed, and fast.

Rating: 4/5

The Old Oak is released in cinemas on September 29. QFT Belfast will host a special preview screening and Q&A with screenwriter Paul Laverty on Saturday September 23 at 6.15pm. Tickets available now via queensfilmtheatre.com