The Old Oak (2023) ‘KIFF’ Review: Ken Loach is a filmmaker who has long been propelled by his sense of indignation; his trenchant fury drives stories around social structures teetering on the brink of ruin, people struggling to carve out a life of dignity within those cracks, imbuing them with urgency, poignance and steely grit. Each of his films is a wake-up call to an audience inured to bitterness and hate. Loach is invoking them to care, to listen, and not look away. In this, he has cemented his status across the decades as the forbearer of social realism.

Socially conscientious dramas are a tightrope. In his two previous films of a purported trilogy, of which The Old Oak is the final one, the director pulled off bristling dramas. They were charged with sentiment and passion. Both are available in spades in The Old Oak. But the film is too over-ridden with plodding dialogues and a series of situations that border on the contrived to honestly articulate its bleeding heart.

The film retreads a bunch of concerns that aren’t new to anyone familiar with Loach’s work. Here, the focus is steered onto a northeastern English mining town set in 2016. The town had once fought together during the miners’ strike of the 80s. However, now the town has become severely fractured. The townsfolk haven’t been doing economically well. A lot of them, mostly old retired men, are enraged at their neighborhood properties being taken over by real estate companies and rented out at dirt-cheap prices. Resentments are spiked up when droves of Syrian refugees start flooding the town. The town’s community fears a drastic change hijacking their places, insecure that they might lose their hold over their home.

The Old Oak (2023) ‘KIFF’ Review
Dave Turner in The Old Oak (2023)

A snapshot of these local tensions is presented mostly through a small group who regularly visit the eponymous pub run by TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner). It’s a grubby pub with its owner scraping by. Ballantyne is divorced, his son has drifted apart, and he hasn’t quite come to terms with his own father, who committed suicide. Ballantyne, too came close to giving up when a miracle crept up to him in the form of his dog, Marra. As he admits, the dog rescued him. It became a raft for him to help him get through life, a companion he needed at a time of utter emotional abandonment. Ballantyne might not be having great business at his pub, but he isn’t one to march along with the hectoring rhetoric of some frequent, old-time rabble-rousing visitors.

It’s a bunch he has had long friendships with, some of whose weddings he has been to. Yet Ballantyne’s beliefs and convictions are too strong to be tempered by the goodwill of an old relationship. One is led to assume Ballantyne’s firmness of opinion has also to do with the persistence with which his friend, Laura (Claire Rodgerson), soldiers on at various charity work. She is disappointed with him because he used to be the one egging everyone to work for the community but now has retreated from any such initiatives. His loss and grief have steamrolled all sense of purpose and the vigor he once had. But his spirit of dissent hasn’t dimmed. He calls out the rampant xenophobia and acute prejudice he witnesses in those around him.

It is Ballantyne who willingly offers to help out Yara (Ebla Mari), a young Syrian woman who has recently moved into the town when her camera is hit in an episode of heckling. He shows her the backroom of his pub that has been lying derelict and unused for years. She is inspired by his photographs taken during the miners’ strike. The two strike a friendship which incurs the displeasure of the men at the pub. While this is a film of impeccably upright intentions, it suffers from stretches of pedestrian dialogues and an inordinately sunny, cheery shift in circumstances that beggars belief.

Characters stress they aren’t racist while doling out the most chauvinist remarks and judgments at their new neighbors. Ultimately, Yara’s goodness and generosity make her win over almost everyone other than those pesky old men who also don the avatar of spiteful online trolls. They are provoked and incensed further when Ballantyne rejects their desire to use the pub’s backroom for hosting discussions fanning their racist bias among the townsfolk. He tells them the room is unsafe while he gives the go-ahead to Yara for using it to house free community lunches, angering the bunch. While The Old Oak coasts along inoffensively on the strength of sincere performances, it feels too sanitized, edifying, and neat, tiding over the raw nerves in an over-sweetened finale of solidarity.

★★½

 The Old Oak screened at the 29th Kolkata International Film Festival 2023.

The Old Oak (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, Letterboxd
The Old Oak (2023) Movie Cast: Ebla Mari, Dave Turner
The Old Oak (2023) Movie Genre: Drama, Runtime: 1h 53m
Where to watch The Old Oak

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