© Wild Bunch/Central

The Old Oak
U.K./France/Belgium 2023

Opening 23 Nov 2023

Directed by: Ken Loach
Writing credits: Paul Laverty
Principal actors: Dave Turner, Ebla Mari, Claire Rodgerson, Trevor Fox, Chris McGlade

The mines closed years ago in the small town of Easington in the north of England, economically devastating the area. Slowly, but surely, the town has dried up, with community spaces closing and houses being sold to foreign developers. There isn’t much hope here, but TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner) has been doing his best to keep the pub, The Old Oak, alive despite the decline. When Syrian refugees are placed in the town, the locals are riled up, but TJ strikes up a friendship with a young woman named Yara (Ebla Mari). Is it possible to bring the community together? Or are the divisions too deep to bridge the divide?

While the theme of The Old Oak is certainly a prescient one considering the influx of refugees to Europe over the past several years, the film stumbles into the trap of being too cliched and stereotypical to really make any sort of positive impact. The setting is one we’ve all heard of before, an impoverished town filled with struggling people forced to accept and integrate a large group of refugees arriving with very little to their names. Instead of coming together as two groups of needy people, the locals push back and racism and xenophobia ensue.

The script does make some basic attempts to bring in the perspectives of the locals, their desperation and lack of food at the fore, but it also continues to present their fear and anger at an influx of refugees as illogical, cruel, and unfair. For once, it would be nice for a filmmaker to broaden the perspective and realize that what is really unfair is a wealthy government which not only neglects its citizens, but also thinks it’s appropriate to place refugees in poverty-stricken locations without the services or the money to be able to support them. No, once again the onus is on the desperate locals to open their hearts and be good people, as they watch the donations flood in for the refugees while their own children face malnutrition. The solution in The Old Oak is for these desperate locals to gather what little resources they have to feed all of the desperate, regardless of their background. A sort of modern-day fairytale where people must create their own community because the government is certainly never going to be there for them, and where the antagonists are those poor locals too bigoted to change. But who is really the antagonist here? The local bigots? Or is it maybe a government who allows this situation or a society at large which can only judge poor people for their lack of compassion? These are certainly not topics addressed in The Old Oak which would rather regurgitate the same old cliched lines of the racist yokels that we’ve heard a million times before rather than take the time and effort to address more meaty and difficult aspects of the situation. Unfortunately, while it is an entertaining and well-paced film, The Old Oak never reaches its potential and is instead a disappointingly wasted opportunity. (Rose Finlay)

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