For quite a long time, the films of a remarkably intelligent and conscientious man named Ken Loach were synonymous with leftism, and attracted a devoted and sizable following. Loach consistently addressed social injustices — people crushed by hardship, the never-ending struggle of the underprivileged, and the ambition of nefarious warmongers. Sometimes, his message and narrative were luminous, poignant, incisive and profoundly humane. On other occasions, it felt like uncomfortable hectoring, an artistic failure born out of noble intentions, lacking in artistry and complexity.
The 87-year-old Loach has serious vision problems now, and said The Old Oak will probably be his farewell to feature films. This sad news left me with angst and regret as I reflected on all the Loach films that have come and gone. One in particular, I, Daniel Blake (2016), deeply stirred me with its bleak portrayal of an elderly, ailing man caught in a web of Kafkaesque bureaucracy. His struggle to navigate the complex process of obtaining a disability pension and unemployment benefits highlighted the cold indifference of a system that seemed designed to frustrate rather than assist. The film felt all too real as we watched a vulnerable man trying to cope with government apathy while providing for a woman and her malnourished children.
Ken Loach and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty, have found a new cause to champion in The Old Oak — Syrian refugees trying to survive in a bleak English mining town. The town bears the scars of abandonment and decay, a haunting reminder of the mines that closed long ago. The workers who never left struggle to make ends meet, yet a few empathize with the immigrants forced from their homeland.
Poverty is fertile ground for xenophobia. Hardship leads people to vent their frustrations at the vulnerable, new neighbors. A town that used to work together and support each other becomes divided in their attitudes toward the Syrian immigrants. The setting for much of this drama is a run-down bar — The Old Oak — once an inviting place to enjoy the camaraderie of friends and forget about life for a while. Now it’s a place of negativity and discord. The bar owner and few Old Oak patrons try to understand all the conflicting perspectives, but also offer a helping hand to Syrian families who have lost nearly everything. In return, the good Samaritans draw the ire and reproach of neighbors who once were friends.
Loach’s storytelling is painfully real, but his didactic tone often seems like an overearnest lecture, a common criticism of some of his other films that lack nuance and appeal. Personally, I found no emotional connection to what I saw and heard in the film — it all feels predictable and superficial. Unfortunately, good intentions don’t necessarily produce great art. Ken Loach’s body of work deserved a much better farewell than The Old Oak.
The Old Oak
Director: Ken Loach.
Actors: Dave Turner, Ebla Mari, Claire Rodgerson, Trevor Fox, Jordan Louis.
Duration: 113 minutes.
Release: September 29, 2023; United Kingdom; StudioCanal.
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