No shame in love: The Old Oak (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 13, 2024)

I’m not sure if I can chalk this up to kismet, or to the fact I’ve seen literally thousands of films in my 68 years on this silly planet…but as the Giant says to Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks: “It is happening again.”

Last week, I watched a 2022 Blu-ray reissue of The Limey that I recently ordered (nice 4k restoration). I hadn’t seen the film since its original theatrical release. In case you are unfamiliar, Steven Soderbergh’s taut 1999 neo-noir centers on a British career criminal (Terrence Stamp) who gets out of prison and makes a beeline for America to investigate the suspicious death of his estranged daughter. He learns she had a relationship with an L.A.-based record producer (Peter Fonda), who may be able to shed some light on her untimely demise. It’s fast-moving and intelligently scripted, with an outstanding supporting cast.

There are snippets throughout depicting Stamp’s character as a young man. Contrary to convention, Soderbergh didn’t cast a younger lookalike actor for these flashbacks, but rather used clips obviously taken from one of Stamp’s 1960s UK films. When I first saw The Limey in 1999, I remember thinking how clever this was, but didn’t feel compelled to investigate which film the clips were taken from. As I learned from one of the Blu-ray’s extras, that film was the 1967 kitchen sink drama Poor Cow, directed by Ken Loach. Turns out it was the legendary UK filmmaker’s first theatrical feature (ashamed and driven by the fear of having my critic’s license revoked, I quickly ordered a Blu-ray copy as an act of contrition).

I know what you’re thinking (“Is there a …point to this fascinating anecdote?”). Fast-forward a day or two, and I received a link to screen Ken Loach’s (self-proclaimed) “final” film. See the symmetry there?

 [awkward silence]

Anyway…The bookend of a triptych of working-class dramas set in Northeast England (preceded by I, Daniel Blake in 2016 and Sorry We Missed You! in 2019), The Old Oak marks the 87-year-old director’s 28th film.

The story (scripted by Paul Laverty) is set in 2016, in an unnamed “pit town” on the Northeast coast of England, and centers on TJ (Dave Turner), who is barely making ends meet as the owner and proprietor of The Old Oak pub. He inherited the pub from his late mother, who had invested in the property with the settlement money she had received after TJ’s father died in a mining accident. TJ himself began working in the local mine just before a major strike in the mid-80s. After the mine closed, he threw himself into community organizing. Depressed over a broken marriage, he’s become more withdrawn in recent years.

TJ was born and raised in the village, so he’s known the pub’s hardcore regulars since his school days. Many of them worked alongside TJ in the mine, and are suffering similar economic hardships, living off modest pensions or on the dole. You get the impression daily life for the town’s residents has become predictably drab; a reliable disappointment. In addition to providing a cozy space where they can toss back a pint or two and forget their problems, The Old Oak has become the de facto community center.

The general torpor of the locale is about to receive a goosing. As I mentioned earlier, Laverty and Loach have set their story in 2016, which was 2 years into the implementation of the UK’s Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. The program offered safety to 20,000 Syrians who were fleeing the crisis in their home country. A large portion of the refugees ended up getting resettled in economically depressed communities (like the fictional ex-mining town in the film) due to the low cost of housing.

One day, a busload of Syrian refugees appears and disembarks in the center of town. Unfortunately, not all the locals appear willing to roll out the welcome wagon. When xenophobic catcalling escalates into a scuffle that results in a young Syrian woman’s camera getting damaged, TJ intervenes and defuses the situation. TJ learns that Yara (Ebla Mari) has picked up her English skills from working as a volunteer in a refugee camp in Jordan. The camera is her most prized possession, as it was given to her by her father, who is imprisoned back in Syria. TJ and Yara strike up a friendship that fuels the heart of the narrative.

The Old Oak is rife with Loach’s trademarks; not the least of which is giving his cast plenty of room to breathe. The entire ensemble (which ranges from first-time film actors to veteran players) delivers relatable, naturalistic performances. Hovering somewhere between Do the Right Thing and Ikuru, The Old Oak is raw, uncompromising, and genuinely moving (so rare at the multiplex nowadays), with an uplifting message of hope and reconciliation. If this is indeed its director’s swan song-what a lovely, compassionate note to go out on.

Shukran, Mr. Loach.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *