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  • Writer's pictureAlex First

The Old Oak (MA) - 113 minutes

Xenophobia is at the heart of The Old Oak, the 15th collaboration between director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty.


The title is the name of a pub in the northeast of England – a popular watering hole – that has seen better days.


It is operated by down-to-earth publican TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner), who is struggling to make ends meet, like most residents of the impoverished town.


It has never recovered since the demise of the mining industry.


It is 2016. An influx of Syrian refugees is not welcomed, adds pressure and changes the dynamic.


One of them is a respectful young woman, Yara (Ebla Mari), who speaks good English.

She learned the language while volunteering to help foreign nurses as she and her family lived in a refugee camp for two years, after escaping her war-torn nation.


Her father – who was a tailor – was taken by the state-sponsored militia and is now missing, presumed dead.


Yara’s most prized possession is the camera that her dad gave her.


Upon exiting the bus on arrival in her new home, it is taken, toyed with and broken by an outspoken local upset that she had taken a photo of him from the bus window.


That sets in train a chain of events that sees kindhearted, but determined Yara interact with and befriend TJ … and eventually many others in town.


In doing so, TJ cops the ire of many of the bar’s regulars, including a mate he went to school with.


The fallout bubbles over after TJ agrees to fix up the pub’s shabby backroom, which has laid dormant for 20 years.


The purpose of doing so is to facilitate integration, but it comes at a cost.


As the movie unfolds, we find out more about Yara’s family and TJ’s own personal struggles.


Gritty, working-class films best describe Ken Loach’s body of work and so it is with The Old Oak.


It is a movie that tugs at the heartstrings, presenting both hardship and hope.


The key characters are well established.

Dave Turner is a natural as a man who has had to turn his life around, but nearly didn’t make it.


Although, admittedly, I struggled to reconcile that narrative thread with the empathetic soul that we see.

Ebla Mari, too, makes a favourable impression as the measured Syrian who wants the best for everyone.


Hers is a rather low-key portrayal of a woman who has experienced much pain and heartbreak.


Claire Rodgerson impresses as the enthusiastic Laura who works with Yara and TJ to propagate the Syrians’ integration into the community.


While I appreciated and was moved by The Old Oak, I could feel myself being manipulated.


I could foretell the chess pieces being shifted for dramatic effect, which I wish I couldn’t.


Mind you, don’t take that to mean that I question the film’s intent or the focus on the evocative subject matter, which I applaud.


The Old Oak remains emotionally wrought throughout and carries a message of the benefits of integration and solidarity.


Rated MA, it scores a 6½ to 7 out of 10.


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