Veteran director Ken Loach’s swansong ‘The Old Oak’ strikes social-realist gold with a touching tale of acceptance and division

Happy together: Ebla Mari and Dave Turner in ‘The Old Oak’.

THE OLD OAK ***1/2 (113 minutes) MA
A real jewel of a movie has landed at the nation’s arthouses; seeped in authenticity, The Old Oak is an engrossing, emotional, topical social-realist drama from legendary British director Ken Loach that deals with the difficulties of old communities accepting new arrivals fleeing undesirable places.

Working from a screenplay by long-time collaborator Paul Laverty, Loach fashions a typically touching and rough-edged portrait of working-class people coping with a world that never gets easier.

Set in 2016 in a small former mining town in northern England, The Old Oak follows the grass-roots impact on its residents when a wave of Syrian refugees arrive in their midst.

Some folk take kindly to the new arrivals, seeing them as innocent, long-suffering people who simply want to start a new life after escaping a repressive, murderous regime.

Others see them as opportunistic interlopers who are bringing stress, division and their alien culture to a town that is already in the process of dying.

Caught in the middle of the rising tensions is TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner), the ageing, lonely, financially stuck proprietor of the decrepit titular pub.

His long-time patrons are mostly against the refugees, voicing their anger at plunging property values and stretched resources. Even the local kids object to how charity donations see the new kids bestowed with stuff they can’t get.

TJ is a big-hearted bloke who finds himself in a tough position with old friends who are against the refugees and object to his tolerance of them, given that he does volunteer work for the local aid agency as a delivery driver.

He forms a friendship with new arrival Yara (Ebla Mari, in a nicely etched performance), a vociferous young Syrian girl. Her love of photography draws her to the photos on the wall of the disused room at the back of the pub, depicting the town’s glory days and strong sense of community.

They inspire her and TJ to reopen the room as an open kitchen, bringing the two communities together with offers of free food and regular communal chow downs.

Only the room becomes a huge sore point, for while TJ is happy to renovate the room for his free kitchen, he was unwilling to let his friends use it as a meeting room to organize opposition to the Syrians.

Few director navigate grey zones as well as Loach for whom conflicting emotions, competing motives and the agony and necessity of personal compromise have long been the mainstay of his formidable filmography.

Reeking with realism, The Old Oak offers a bittersweet and emotional story that effortlessly airs many timely issues through the touching central story of a lonely man who is doing his best to do good in the conflict zone of his crumbling home town.

At 87, with over 25 films, Loach has said that The Old Oak is his swansong.

If that is the case he deserves recognition and eternal respect as a conviction filmmaker whose dedication to telling stories about the working class and human rights never wavered.

He certainly can’t be faulted for the consistency of his style or his commitment.

Loach’s films might have been fuelled by his socialist beliefs, but they forever shine as deeply human dramas, not as political screeds.

This is why his films can be appreciated regardless of the viewer’s politics, and why their appeal will never wane.