Ken Loach mixes a potent post-Brexit brew in ‘The Old Oak'

Ken Loach mixes a potent post-Brexit brew in ‘The Old Oak' | Soho House

The filmmaker’s latest slice-of-life drama is a sentimental reminder of the power of our local pub when we need it most

Saturday 30 September 2023   By Hanna Flint

In the UK, there really isn’t anything else quite like the pub. For centuries, boozers have serviced communities in times of need and celebration, of war and peace. They’ve fermented social cohesion as strongly as the brews and spirits that fill their various taps and bar shelves, serving as a respite to the daily drudgery of life. In the Doncaster village I grew up in, we had The Boat Inn and The Ivanhoe, though I visited the Queen Vic and the Rovers Return far more often, thanks to years of watching EastEnders and Coronation Street with my mum and grandma.

This week, I stopped by The Old Oak – the eponymous pub that serves as the setting for Ken Loach's latest filmic endeavour – and left the screening room with my heart fit to burst. The third in a trilogy centred on the working-class struggles of Northeast England (after I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You), I now understand why the film earned a 15-minute standing ovation after premiering at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. For this fictional public house, located in a forgotten village in County Durham, serves as a ground zero for solidarity, strength and empathy in the face of financial hardship, political adversity and racial tensions for its characters.

The Old Oak has seen better days. It was once a thriving hub for the local mining community, providing free meals and support to workers and families struggling to put food on the table during the strikes and associated social upheaval. Nowadays, its wallpaper is peeling, there are damp marks everywhere and the letter ‘K’ in the sign outside won't stay up straight despite our world-weary landlord TJ’s (Dave Turner) efforts. They’re not his best efforts, though. The 50-something singleton lives alone upstairs in the pub with only his sweet dog, Marra, for company and is mostly going through the motions of life. 

You might say the dilapidated pub is a psychological reflection of TJ’s state of mind, but arguably it’s more of a metaphor for the wider community. A pub can only ever be as healthy as the neighbourhood it serves and the locals are suffering. TJ watches his regulars complain about the house-price gouging going on to the point that one of them bursts into tears. Then there’s the fact that parents are having to choose between feeding their kids or paying the heating bill. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this film is set in the same year that the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 was given Royal Assent. Cuts and caps to benefits meant the poorest families in the country were having to make their already small pay cheques stretch further than ever. 

The villagers are frustrated; they’re angry – and the temperature only increases when a group of Syrian refugees are rehomed nearby. As the locals watch charitable donations being dropped off at the homes of these displaced families, bitterness hangs heavy in The Old Oak. TJ stands in silence as the people he’s known since school offer up the aged-old adage of ‘I'm not racist, but…’ before spewing out disgusting xenophobic vitriol against these ‘ragheads’ and ‘foreigners’. There's a stringent air of authenticity to these conversations, which screenwriter Paul Lavery laces with discriminatory language that the cast of mostly non-actors deliver so sharply, so matter-of-factly, it’s enough to make you wince.

When TJ befriends Yara (Ebla Mari), a Syrian photographer, some of her hope rubs off on him and he’s forced out of social and political hibernation. They begin to work together to integrate the community by fixing up the backroom of the pub and bringing back free meals for everyone who needs them. ‘When you eat together, you stick together,’ reads an old mantra of TJ’s late mother on the wall. As we see hijabi mothers chatting with bleach-blonde grandmas as well as brown and white kids laughing over hot meals, The Old Oak becomes a healthier, livelier place – and so does TJ.

It’s hard to believe that these are the first lead performances for Turner and Mari. He was a firefighter for most of his life and she a school teacher, but they showcase a profound rawness and emotional rigour that has you invested in their characters throughout. At 87, Loach still has the power to bring out a vivid realism from his cast, not to mention an expert understanding of when actions speak louder than words. The final scene is a beautiful, life-affirming example of that and will stick with me for years to come.

The Old Oak might just be the most potent cinematic comment on post-Brexit Britain without ever uttering the word. It’s also a sentimental reminder that the local pub serves the public – no matter where they come from. 

‘The Old Oak’ is showing at Soho House screening rooms this week. See here for the full timetable

Ken Loach mixes a potent post-Brexit brew in ‘The Old Oak' | Soho House