The Old Oak: Open the Doors

‘It’s not our pub anymore, innit?’ No, it’s something far better.

Directed by Ken Loach, The Old Oak is a pub that’s hanging on by a thread. Barely holding together, the place is still seen as a community hub and its humble owner, TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner) does his best to keep things running. But the neighbourhood changes overnight with the arrival of a bus of Syrian refugee families who settle in the area. Torn between his paying customers and these new arrivals in need, Ballantyne forms a bond with refugee, Yara (Ebla Mari) and feels compelled to help. But, as the two begin to work together to use the Old Oak as a community space where people can eat together, the two face increasing pressure to shut the doors in order to preserve ‘the way things used to be’.

In many ways, The Old Oak is a profound piece of cinema. With films like The Wind that Shakes the Barley and I, Daniel Blake in his repertoire, Loach has never shied away from the struggles of the poor and disenfranchised in the UK. However, with Oak, Loach acknowledges that the problems faced within their own borders are not the only ones that matter. Here, he recognizes the need to come together and help everyone, no matter where they’re from.

Setting the film in poverty-stricken Northern England, Loach taps into the brokenness and fear of a community that’s struggling to keep themselves together. With housing prices dropping and corporations buying up spaces for pennies on the dollar, the local population are in dire straits. There is fear within their soul as they struggle to feed their children. To them, their neighbourhood slipping away from them before their eyes.

It’s this fear that feeds their hatred of the influx of Syrian families that begin to arrive. Tension mounts as locals want things to be the same. However, with refugees filling the neighbourhood, suddenly their world begins to change. 

And, seemingly, the battle lines are drawn within The Old Oak.

Here, in this community, the Old Oak remains the primary meeting space and last refuge for those who have lived there. Like the community in which it resides, it’s visibly crumbling… but it’s still home. And it’s for this reason that TJ’s willingness to open its doors as a welcome space to those who are hurting that ruffles feathers. As TJ and Yara connect, he hears the suffering of those who have just arrived. And the more he listens, the more that he wants to help. He hasn’t got much himself but he has the Oak. And that’s something he can share.

In the Oak, Loach creates a space that mimics the grand tree that it’s named after. Like an old oak, this pub has developed deep roots where it’s planted. It means something to these people. At the same time though, it also offers its ‘branches’ to bring shade and safety to those who need refuge. Partnering with Yara, this Oak will be a space where all are welcome to find solace. As the Old Oak opens its backroom, the walls between worlds begin to dissolve. Cultures are celebrated and hearts begin to heal. Much to the chagrin of some, this is the rebirth of a new community.

After all, ‘when you eat together, you stick together’.

If this is indeed the final film in Loach’s incredible career, there’s no question that he still understands the sort of message that needs to be heard in our culture. Loach has always had the ability to cut to the heart of those who are in need but, here, he asks questions about what needs to happen for us to rebuild something new. Something better.

No, The Old Oak isn’t the pub for one particular group anymore. Instead, Loach wants to explore what it takes to truly create room for others, especially when some are unwilling to unlock the doors.

The Old Oak is available in select theatres on Friday, April 5th, 2024.

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