The Old Oak
The Old Oak is a heartwarming new film that tackles the difficulty Syrians who have left their war-torn country face when starting a new life in the UK. Like all discussions surrounding asylum seekers, there are sceptics who resent the idea of unknown people coming in and taking space within their home, there are kind souls who put effort into getting to know the new arrivals, and there are those on the fence who don’t necessarily hate the Syrians but don’t interact with them either. The feature looks at all the different sides, exploring questions of how a community can take care of people from the outside if they can’t even take care of their own, and the struggles everyone faces in their everyday life. Other triggering topics include suicidal ideation, the death of an animal, footage of war, verbal racism and physical bullying.
A piece by socialist director Ken Loach – whose previous work includes The Wind that Shakes the Barley on Irish Independence, The Angel’s Share following a community payback group, and I, Daniel Blake, which explores government support and allowance – The Old Oak is very much in theme with Loach’s signature socially critical approach to filmmaking, his preferred topics of conversation, and collaboration with writer Paul Laverty. As the final outing of his directorial career, The Old Oak is somewhat of a last word for Loach: one final way to make a mark on the world and encourage everyone to be involved in helping others. It’s a feature that will leave an everlasting mark, just like all his other films have done.
What makes this movie a frustrating watch are the characters – not because they’re badly written, but because some are such awful human beings that they can actually get under the viewer’s skin with their words and acts of cruelty. But this is a good thing. That raw anger errs on the side of realism and creates further impact. Even more so when contrasting the kindness of the majority of the other locals, including the main protagonist TJ (Dave Turner), local owner of the pub, The Old Oak. The warmth of other people’s help and the idea of coming together as a community comprised of two very different groups of people is a strong motif here. It’s especially carried by the line, “When you eat together, you stick together”. Food is the thread that holds everyone together – it’s the simple fact that no matter who a person is and where they come from, they need food to survive.
Of course, this brings forth the main point of contention of the film – that if the small village in County Durham can’t feed its own starving children, what more is there for the Syrians that have come over? It’s this idea of charity starting at home and finding a solution that can satisfy both sides of the equation. These questions are further amplified by the Syrians coming together and taking care of each other and TJ despite their own troubles at home, a stark opposition to the bullying, fighting and insults thrown at TJ by people he has known all his life, all because of his efforts to help the Syrians.
While the production is simple, the strength of the story carries the film. At the end of it all, The Old Oak is a gentle reminder that even if not every problem is resolved, not everyone gets their happy ending, and not all bad people atone or get redemption, there’s still hope. There’s more good than bad in the world, and sometimes, that’s all people need to carry on.
The Old Oak is released nationwide on 29th September 2023.
Watch the trailer for The Old Oak here: