Ken Loach says this is his last film – if so, he’s going out on a high

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The Old Oak ★★★★
(MA15+) 113 minutes

Anyone who wants to understand the causes of right-wing populism need look no further than Ken Loach’s new film, The Old Oak.

It’s about the sense of grievance which can fester in a community once it’s lost its reason for being.

Dave Turner and Ebla Mari as T.J. and Yara in The Old Oak.

Loach, who’s 87, says that it’s probably his last film. If so, he’s going out on a high. After all these years, he hasn’t lost his touch. He converts reality into fiction with his usual accuracy and care, stripping down the facts yet somehow doubling their impact with the sense of intimacy that enriches all his films. His actors are so convincing that they could well have stepped off the street and into the frame. He may make you cry but that’s not because his brand of social realism is depressing. He still has hope.

Admittedly, there’s not much on show in the opening scenes of this film. A group of Syrian refugee families are being delivered to their new homes in a village near Durham in the UK’s north-east and things are not going well.

Once part of a thriving coal-mining region, the village is in decline. Shops have closed, property values have tumbled and some vociferous locals have gathered to express their resentment at the refugees’ arrival.

T.J. tries to fix the sign on his pub. It’s not exactly a subtle metaphor for the precarious nature of his fortunes but it does the job.

One of the few friendly faces belongs to T.J. Ballantyne (Dave Turner), owner of The Old Oak, the village’s only pub, which is barely surviving. When the film opens, T.J. is trying in vain to straighten the wobbly “k” in the sign on the wall. It’s not exactly a subtle metaphor for the precarious nature of his fortunes but it does the job.

Inside the Oak, a few of the regulars sit airing their complaints about the state of the neighbourhood, fixing on the refugees as a symptom of all that’s gone wrong for them. During this diatribe, which is getting uglier by the moment, T.J. says nothing. He doesn’t need to. His worries and disappointments are etched into the lines and folds shaping a face which would once have been open and guileless. These are his patrons. He’s known them all his life, they help to keep The Old Oak going and he’s not in the mood to engage them in a row.

But his conscience thinks otherwise and the kindness he shows to Yara (Ebla Mari), a young Syrian refugee and her family blossoms into a friendship which eventually prompts him to break his silence. His courage costs him. He faces a couple of devastating blows before things begin to look up for him and the Syrian families but Loach’s faith in the human capacity for empathy prevails in the end. Best of all, he brings off this optimistic flourish without the taint of sentimentality. He’s not trying to tell us that the village has miraculously cleansed itself of bigotry. He’s too much the realist for that. Nonetheless, it’s an immensely moving film.

The Old Oak is in cinemas from Thursday, November 30

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