The Old Oak review: Ken Loach's swansong is typically disarming

Ebla Mari in The Old Oak. (Studiocanal)
Ebla Mari in The Old Oak. (Studiocanal)
  • 🎞️ When is The Old Oak out: In cinemas from Friday, 29 September

  • ⭐️ Our rating: 4/5

  • 🎭 Who's in it? Dave Turner, Ebla Mari, Trevor Fox, Jordan Louis, Debbie Honeywood, Neil Leiper

  • 👍 What we liked: The film has compassion, a strong sense of community, and an ability to catch the audience emotionally unawares.

  • 👎 What we didn't: Too many targets makes the narrative feel over-stretched.

  • 📖 What's it about? A pub landlord struggles to hold onto his pub in a once thriving mining community in the North East. When a group of Syrian refugees are placed in empty houses in the town, it causes resentment in the community, but the landlord and one of the new arrivals start to believe the declining pub could offer a way of bringing everybody together.

  • ⏱️ How long is it? 1 hour 53 minutes

It’s nearly ten years since we were told that Ken Loach had made his last film, although reports of his departure were, as they say, premature.

Jimmy’s Hall (2014) was followed by what’s now regarded as his North East trilogy, the third part of which arrives in cinemas this week. And, as The Old Oak opens its doors, he’s already said this will be his final film.

There’s no sign of him changing his mind and an unexpected hint of softness in the film points towards him sticking to his word. Not that he’s ever lacked compassion and his ability to catch his audience emotionally unawares remains as unerring as ever.

But there are moments, especially towards the conclusion, which make the narrative feel too neat and almost comfortable, which is at odds with his usual down-to-earth style.

Watch a trailer for The Old Oak

Together with his regular collaborator — screenwriter Paul Laverty — Loach once again plucks an issue from the headlines and approaches it from a more personal, less publicised angle. This time it’s a subject that still, tragically, continues to make the news, but instead he looks at the plight of refugees from the perspective of those who have already arrived – in this case in 2016 – and are trying to build a whole new life.

The Syrians who set up home in the small North East former mining town have been cast adrift in much the same way as their new neighbours, who have seen their livelihood and community dramatically decline once the pit closed.

Ebla Mari in The Old Oak. (Studiocanal)
Ebla Mari in The Old Oak. (Studiocanal)

It's a subject that provides Loach with a number of targets, both past and present, and they turn out to be the film’s biggest challenge. There’s no shortage of passion on the director’s part, but there is the sense that he may have bitten off a little more than he can chew this time, making the narrative feel over-stretched and some of the issues under-developed.

Despite all the reasons for despair, from the hostility among some of the locals towards their new neighbours to landlord T J’s (Dave Turner) precarious circumstances to The Old Oak’s perpetually wobbly sign, it’s still a film fuelled by hope.

Dave Turner in The Old Oak. (Studiocanal)
Dave Turner in The Old Oak. (Studiocanal)

The possibility of a new community taking shape in the face of adversity is inspiring, as is the history of the region, in the shape of old black and white photographs and the masculine grandeur of Durham Cathedral. It all boils down to the positive side of human nature, even if it’s sometimes buried deep.

The Old Oak may not quite be classic Loach, but his heart and power are as strong as ever.

The Old Oak is in UK and Ireland cinemas from 29 September.

Read more: Ken Loach