Review: The Old Oak – What’s old is new
Directed by Ken Loach
Starring Dave Turner, Elba Mari, Claire Rodgerson, Trevor Fox
Racial tensions are at the centre of this new film from director Ken Loach, when a few families of Syrian immigrants settle into a small town in County Durham to avoid the war in their home country. Although The Old Oak can often come across as a nice film about neighbourly duties, it can also be laid on awfully thick, with subtleties in this array of characters giving way to broader strokes.
The humble town that pub owner Ballantyne (Dave Turner) resides in has seen its better days. Once a thriving mining community, it is now home to a lot of people barely in work and barely able to pay their bills. This puts the townsfolk on edge and suspicious to outsiders, which only intensifies with the introduction of the Syrian immigrants.
Many of these townsfolk are immediately hostile to the refugees, causing trouble with them even before they’ve gotten off the bus. Ballantyne is privy to the conversations about them in the pub, but backs away from any political discussion. He’s a believer in community, and although he doesn’t agree to opening the pub’s dance hall for hostile discussions, he does agree to open it up as a charity kitchen for the needy in the town, with the help of many of the Syrians.
The two worlds that Ballantyne resides in shows the pull between the older more restrictive world and the newer more accepting world. Though there’s not a whole lot of internal conflict with the fairly easy-going and quiet man, who doesn’t seem to have too much agency and is willing to go with other peoples’ suggestions.
Of course, this means push-back from the native town locals, conjuring ways to get back at him. Yet the story just seems to be going through the motions of making us feel as sorry for Ballantyne as we can, with one sad story after another. Some plot-line tangents, including one about Ballantyne’s dog, seem to have been inserted just to make the story even more miserable.
This is a very earnest movie, displaying varying degrees of racial hostility towards newcomers, from outright racism to hostile prejudices to questioning uncertainty. There is the sense that the film, with all its characters of different viewpoints and backgrounds, is designed to simply show how to be a nice person. In a way, it makes for a sometimes cheery story, but other times, comes across as too overly-constructed to denounce prejudice.
The Old Oak plays as part of the 2023 Cunard British Film Festival, which runs until Wednesday, November 29, 2023. Click here to see the full programme.