Cannes Film Festival Review: Ken Loach’s The Old Oak, four stars


The old oak

four stars

Premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, The Old Oak is the latest – and possibly last – feature film from veteran hothead Ken Loach. Written by Paul Laverty, his regular Scottish writer, her 14th collaboration is another high-profile drama that forms a loose trilogy with Loach’s last two films, Cannes-winning 2016’s I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You”, completed (2019).

Like these, this takes place in the North East of England, in a former mining community beset by poverty that successive governments have seemingly ignored. Or, as one character so succinctly puts it, “This has now become a landfill.” Like the food banks in “I, Daniel Blake” and the zero-hour contracts in “Sorry We Missed You,” Loach and Laverty are adept at to highlight how Britain is at its seams.

Set in 2016, The Old Oak is a seedy pub owned by landlord TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner). The regulars who come lament their lot, especially when Syrian refugees arrive. Among them is Yara (Ebla Mari), whose paths TJ first cross after a drunk local man smashes her camera. TJ quietly helps fix her device, but behind the bar he remains silent as the locals – including his old classmate Charlie (Trevor Fox) – turn their anger 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, poverty below subsistence level, the devastating consequences of the miners’ strike and the division of families – all this is dealt with. There’s even a heartfelt moment with a dog. But Loach’s rallying cry is a call for communities to come together and help one another in times of crisis. “We understand loss,” Yara’s mother once told TJ, and “The Old Oak” is a story about a shared pain, a pain halved.

Turner, who rises from minor roles to lead in Loach’s last two films, anchors the film with an emotional twist. Newcomer Mari also delivers an outstanding performance, even if the film is occasionally let down by a few amateurs who aren’t always top-notch. But for all its rough edges, it’s a film with a real heart and hope, right down to the very last shot of a peaceful march through the streets of Durham touting solidarity.

It’s certainly not Loach’s most powerful work, and it veers towards the didactic at times, but it’s heartening to see him fighting the good fight at 86. The film’s use of Yara’s photos, captured in the local community, says as much about Loach as it does about her. From his earliest works to The Old Oak, his modest interest in people has never waned. If this is truly his last appearance, his humanity and sense of political conviction will be sorely missed.

Grace Reader

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