In British cinema, few directors have had the cultural impact of Ken Loach. Decades of elevating working-class stories has made him a figure of great acclaim in the industry (he’s one of only nine directors to win the Palme d’Or twice, for example). 56 years on from his first feature, Loach returns with his final film, and it demonstrates one undeniable truth – nothing lasts forever. The Old Oak is technically a historical story, as it is set in 2016, right in the midst of heightened racial tension surrounding Brexit. This gives Loach a good canvas to work from, while also showing how little has changed in the seven years since.
Decades of elevating working-class stories has made him a figure of great acclaim in the industry
Like his last two films (I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You), The Old Oak is set in the North East, an area of England famously underserved by successive governments. Ken Loach finds a harmony between time and place to tell a story about Syrian refugees being put up in a small, deprived town. In what was perhaps an attempt to make the content palatable to the common viewer, we look through the eyes of the local pub owner, alone and willing to offer a helping hand to those suffering racist abuse. While there are no immediate conceptual issues, Loach’s execution leaves a tremendous amount to be desired.
Firstly, his insistence on working with local (often first time) actors regrettably leads to some shaky line deliveries, like a local theatre production but without the heart. Some performances buck this trend – Ebla Mari is appropriately earnest as Yara – but she is very much the exception to the rule. There are plenty of other issues in the execution – it is a tonal mess, shifting between brutal physical violence and clunky local humour without any consideration for the viewer. Perhaps the biggest issue is that it feels like a biopic. The rapidly shifting B-plots and overabundance of characters would be justified if this were a true story (as I assumed while watching), so to find out this is a fictional tale is certainly disorientating.
The ending is more optimistic than much of Loach’s work, and this is highlighted by a visually smoothing trip to Durham Cathedral, the ultimate highlight of the film. That said, it still isn’t happy, and many characters feel like joyless husks by the end. This is Loach’s trademark and has helped him carry a filmmaking career that has lasted 11 Prime Ministers.
The Old Oak is not his finest work, but I don’t think it needs to be. The subject matter is genuine, and extremely important, and that seems to be all Loach has ever been concerned with. As far as I’m concerned, that is a good legacy to leave behind.