Syrians come to Durham

Patrick Mulcahy on Ken Loach’s last picture

“The Old Oak” has been described as director Ken Loach’s final film. If that turns out to be the case, it signals a noble if unsatisfying way to bow out. Loach’s contribution to European cinema is phenomenal. He has pioneered a realist aesthetic, sometimes copied, casting non-professional actors, filming dramas in sequence, withholding the script, and surprising cast members on screen to catch a more genuine reaction. Rarely working with established actors in the last thirty years since his 1991 resurgence with “Riff Raff”– Ian Hart and Peter Mullan are exceptions – he launched careers. Robert Carlyle, Ricky Tomlinson, Dave Johns, and Hayley Squires came to prominence in his films. Committed to socialism, he found a vessel for optimism in former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the subject of his 2016 documentary, “In Conversation”.

Loach’s rage against Conservative Government and compassion for working class people drove him to tackle subjects such as the gig economy, debt, the benefits system, alcoholism, attitudes towards mixed-race relationships and the privatisation of the rail industry in his British-based movies. He made a conscious choice to focus on dramas set both in the North of England, Scotland and Ireland, the latter in the period dramas “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”and “Jimmy’s Hall”. He is one third of a team with producer Rebecca O’Brien and writer Paul Laverty. His production team also includes cinematographer Robbie Ryan and composer George Fenton.

Loach’s protagonist is fifty-something publican T J Ballantyne (Dave Turner), who when we first meet him is helping Syrian refugee families move into their new accommodation in a village near Durham, Northern England. Unemployment is rife. Houses left vacant for years are sold at reduced cost decimating the value of properties owned by neighbouring residents. The local population is resentful. Why are Syrian refugees getting all the help? When a local breaks the camera belonging to would-be Syrian photographer Yara (Ebla Mari), T J is caught in the middle. He knows the perpetrator but doesn’t want to cause any waves. Instead, he helps Yara get her camera repaired, donating two unused cameras belonging to his family as payment.

T J is another of Loach’s damaged loners, divorced and estranged from his adult son. He serves his regulars in near silence. He is kind and decent, untainted by hatred. When it comes to depicting the working class, Loach doesn’t assess what makes some men compassionate and others resentful, though T J’s upbringing and the photographs in an unused backroom in his pub, the titular Old Oak, come into play.  One saying also comes into play: the community that eats together sticks together. 

T J has an idea, to work with local charities to help provide communal meals. However, this provokes the pub’s regulars, who want to use the back room for a meeting, on how to respond to the influx of Syrian families. A flash point occurs.

It is unclear why T J is helping the families in the first place. Loach and Laverty do not establish him in an identifiable social situation at the start of the film. We find out that he knows a local charity worker, Laura (Claire Rodgerson) but given his reluctance to directly confront prejudice, we are not sure why he is assisting her when he has his customers to think about. T J undoubtedly takes a side, something Loach’s protagonists do in the course of his dramas, but the cause is larger than his ability to change behaviours.

Loach and Laverty take the drama into an interesting direction, when T J accompanies Yari to a visit to Durham Cathedral, T J explaining how the miners’ banners were blessed there. Loach isn’t known for his support of organised religion, but the film gives way to an appreciation to something larger than Loach’s characters, an appreciation of how the Anglican Church provided support for the people of Durham. There is something approaching religiosity in the scene in which Syrians sit down with the locals and enjoy free food. Yari finds herself in conflict with a local mother after helping her malnourished child who experienced exhaustion during a school sports day. The mother approaches Yari with a proposition of her own.

Yari holds a Nan Goldin-style slide show in T J’s backroom while live Syrian music is played. The locals enjoy seeing themselves. The mirror helps their self-esteem just as, we imagine, Loach’s filmmaking gives dignity to his characters.

The film falters in its climax, which does not feel earned. There is a point at which the villagers show compassion to one Syrian family with a religious solemnity. I do not doubt that some families would have behaved in this way, but the scene does not feel entirely honest given the nature of what we have seen before.

Absent from the film is any criticism of the government. Loach received support from BBC Films and as any regular viewer of BBC News will tell you, neutrality in its coverage of domestic politics has disappeared, evidenced by hostile interviews with striking workers from a range of occupations (hospitals, railways). In interviews, Loach is as forthright as ever. Perhaps in Loach’s second retirement is the acknowledgement that the mainstream British film industry simply cannot tolerate oppositional voices. The funding position is too precarious. Loach is not quitting; he is being forced out.

 “The Old Oak”’ was released in UK cinemas on 29 September 2023.

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