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The Old Oak

Ken Loach's unmissable swansong

**** The Old Oak is in select cinemas nationwide.

The Old Oak

(M, 113 mins) Directed by Ken Loach Reviewed by Graeme Tuckett

Ken Loach is a global treasure. The Old Oak won't even be remembered as one of his greats. But if it is, as he claims, the last film in an unrepeatable career, then he is surely going out with all flags hoisted and all his angels singing in tune.

Loach has a style of hard-bitten, drily funny social realism that is all his own. From his first features – Poor Cow in 1967 and the stunningly good Kes in 1969 – Loach has been the unquiet conscience of the British industry.

Loach has been opening my eyes, kicking me in the face and making me laugh in flat-out delight at the bloodyminded beauty and resilience of good people in tough spaces, ever since some well-meaning and short-lived student teacher sat me down to watch Kes, in Te Awamutu, some time in the 1980s.

In the years since, Riff-Raff, Raining Stones, My Name is Joe, The Navigators, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Looking For Eric, Jimmy’s Hall, I, Daniel Blake and so many others, have provided some of the most ineffaceable hours I’ve spent in a cinema.

There are still too many Loach films I haven’t seen – and many that are seemingly impossible to find here. But the brilliant people at AroVision, Academy OnDemand, Lumiere Online and Deluxe At Home are doing what they can to put that right. I, Daniel Blake, Looking For Eric, Sorry We Missed You and a few others are available there, as well as on some international streaming services.

At the age of 87, Loach can still turn in a solid, necessary, engaging and honest piece of work, stuffed with dialogue that rings true, dilemmas that hit home and characters you could meet – with a few changes of wardrobe and language – in any working-class community in the world.

The Old Oak is a pub, on an anonymous street, in a town not too far from Durham, in northeast England. It is a place that has never really recovered from the mine closures and the evisceration of the unions that was ushered in by Thatcher in the 1980s.

Bitterness and xenophobia have been stoked by the online conspiracy drivel that Brexit and Covid brought and, today, the place is a muttering mess of chronic unemployment and disillusioned, toxic nationalism.

All of which makes the arrival of a group of Syrian refugees the exact spark that Loach and long-time co-writer Paul Laverty need, to make old resentments smoulder and create the crucible that will bring out the worst – but also maybe the best – in these gorgeous, flawed, relatable people.

The Old Oak is unadorned, simplistic, naive, contrived, clunky at times, with an ending that seemingly arrives out of nowhere and borders on the facile. It is also one of my favourite films of the last few months and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Just last week, I sat through the efforts of another octogenarian British filmmaker – a knight, no less – trying to find something cogent to say about a warlord who has been dead for 200 years, and hoping we might think it mattered if he succeeded.

Loach, who would laugh in your face if you offered him a title – and with a thousandth of the budget, has managed to make an entrancing and grimly moving wee film out of nothing but the present day, a tiny crew, a cast of mostly unknowns and an eye as honest and undimmed as ever. All power to him.

Go and see The Old Oak. It will probably be the last chance you have to see Loach on a proper screen – and it would be rude to pass that up.

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