The Movie Waffler New to Netflix - THE OLD OAK | The Movie Waffler

New to Netflix - THE OLD OAK

New to Netflix - THE OLD OAK
A troubled pub landlord befriends a young Syrian refugee.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Ken Loach

Starring: Dave Turner, Elba Mari, Chris McGlade, Debbie Honeywood, Trevor Fox

The Old Oak poster

If the reports are to be believed, The Old Oak represents Ken Loach's swan song. If this is indeed Loach's last hurrah, he's going out with his best movie in a couple of decades. It's also a film that sums up Loach's best and worst tendencies. At his best, Loach has an ability to coax remarkable performances out of amateur performers, embodying characters we develop a fondness for as the narrative develops. At his worst, Loach can often push aside his character's humanity, reducing them to a crude mouthpiece for his political views. Both aspects of Loach are present here.

The Old Oak review

Having featured in minor roles in Loach's last couple of films, Dave Turner gets the lead role here of TJ Ballantyne, the landlord of the titular Durham pub. Both TJ and his pub have seen better days. He's nursing the wounds of a divorce and mourning a son who refuses to speak to him. His pub is crumbling around him, embodied by his frustration in trying to get the letter K to stay in place on the pub's frontage.

Still, mustn't grumble, others have it worse after all. Enter a busload of Syrian refugees placed into cramped houses bought up by vulture funds. Among them is Yari (Elba Mari), a budding young photographer who has her camera broken by a local yob upon arrival. When TJ steps in to help her out, she becomes attached to him. This places TJ in the sights of his disgruntled customers, who make crude jokes about his relationship with the young Syrian. But the ribbing turns serious when a group of angry locals ask TJ to open up his back room so they can hold an anti-immigrant meeting. Citing insurance reasons, TJ declines their request, yet he willingly opens up the room when Yari suggests holding communal dinners as a way for the two communities to bond.

The Old Oak review

Loach is practically the embodiment of what we think of as British social realist filmmaking, but The Old Oak draws heavily on the sort of social dramas that were popular in the golden age of Hollywood. It's essentially a western (or perhaps in this case, a North-Eastern?), with Turner's TJ the sort of good man torn between doing the right thing and placing himself in danger that Henry Fonda and James Stewart so often played. Like the heroes of so many classic westerns, TJ initially just wants to keep his head down, ignoring his customers' racist remarks. But there comes a point in every western in which the hero must finally take a stand. Of course, a Ken Loach film isn't going to culminate in a shootout, but it does build up to a confrontation of sorts. A classic trope of the western is the idea of the hero being betrayed by a friend who has chosen a different path, and that's what we get here in the figure of Charlie (Trevor Fox). The two are lifelong friends but Charlie blames his problems on the immigrants and his reductive "you're either with us or against us" mentality sees him become an enemy of TJ, yet another blow to a man who has lost practically everything.

As you might expect, there are occasional digressions into speechifying. At some point in every Loach film the protagonist will deliver their own crude version of Chaplin's monologue at the end of The Great Dictator. It's particularly galling here as it feels incongruous to TJ's taciturn nature. What's so great about the character of TJ is how he's a man who clearly possesses neither the vocabulary nor the confidence to express his feelings, and some of the film's most touching moments involve him sitting awkwardly as he's taken aback by gestures of kindness or seething silently as he's mocked by customers he can't afford to turn against.

The Old Oak review

Some viewers may complain about Loach's exploitation of refugees from a foreign conflict in order to highlight his own country's shortcomings, and it's a fair point. It's also notable how black characters are absent from the drama until a late crowd scene in which half the extras appear to be black. Is this Loach's cynical way of getting around BAFTA's diversity rules?

Such complaints would mask what is a fitting end to Loach's career, one filled with small moments of humanity that have more impact than any angry monologue. There's a lovely scene where the atheist TJ and the Muslim Yari visit Durham cathedral. What the building represents theologically might not resonate with either of them, but they're moved by its grandeur, and Yari notes how many such historical buildings in her own country have been destroyed in the conflict.

The Old Oak
 is on Netflix UK/ROI now.

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