Set in a small north-eastern English town still living in the shadows of the UK miners’ strike, a new form of solidarity and brotherhood emerges as Ken Loach weaves a heart-warming story of a group of Syrian refugees trying to make a new life for themselves – but who is in more strife – the refugees or the forgotten townspeople?
This unassuming film begins with a poignant metaphor as our soft spoken reluctant hero TJ Ballantyne goes about his morning: walking his dog, opening his decaying pub and propping up the falling letter in sign outside – a temporarily glossing over far bigger problems than TJ himself knows. This is the Old Oak, clinging on just like TJ, in a poor town rife with bitterness and pain, discontent simmering just below the surface, chiefly represented through xenophobic regulars complaining after a few pints. TJ himself seems to be honest, forthright and impartial – caring for those in his community with a dull sense of duty. This extends to helping the local aid worker Laura settle several Syrian refugee families in the community. However, this soon acts as a catalyst and the poorly concealed rage of the town bubbles over.
The tension mounts as the regular patrons ask TJ to open up the back room of The Old Oak to allow them to have a community meeting about their concerns with the refugees settled in ‘their’ town. He clearly understands their concerns – the community look on hungrily as TJ and Laura drop off supplies that they sorely need too, but he seems to not want to be drawn into their potentially poisonous party. However, when one of the Syrian women Yara (arguably the co-protagonist of the film) is inspired by photos of the 80s miner’s strike, she TJ and Laura conspire to open up the back room and feed the hungry locals and refugees alike.
Blinded by their own self-concern and hatred the bar flies who originally asked TJ to open up the bar take great offense at their friends’ supposed betrayal and their retribution shocks the entire town. However, more shocking is an unexpected loss experienced by Yara’s family that cuts to the core of what it is to be human, and unites the town in their greif.
This film’s plea for compassion can be at times overly obvious and blunt, but director Loach skillfully weaves together the dull ache of a town of people without hope and purpose after being abandoned, with the fresh emotional wounds of the Syrians fleeing their war torn homes. This film is a gripping portrayal of grief from two sides – as Yara and TJ both grieve and learn to heal together. This film is an ode to enduring humanity in the face of imaginable pain. This film is solidarity and strength in action. (8/10)
The Old Oak is in cinemas as a part of the British Film Festival – click here to find out more.