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The Old Oak

StudioCanal, 2023


Ken Loach / Paul Laverty

Reading Time:

6 minutes

The Old OakSpring Unfolds (G7NYPT90IMRWOG46)
00:00 / 07:48

📷 : Licensed from Shutterstock

The Old Oak


Image of movie's tea brew

Family dramas


Image of movie's tea brew

Movies and TV shows with heart, positive vibes, and warm messages

Reba Chaisson


There’s nothing like underestimating people because they hail from a culture different than our own. Indeed, it reminds me of the identities imposed on Indigenous Peoples by the newcomers in the 17th century. Because of differences in appearance and the practicing of certain customs, Pilgrims viewed Native Americans as “savages” who needed taming, and that those who resisted needed eliminating. More than four centuries later, the tendency to view unfamiliar people as something other than human lingers. Ken Loach’s film, The Old Oak, helps us see that there is another way.

Set in Northern England, The Old Oak centers on a present-day working class Irish enclave, where childhood friends grew to become adult neighbors. TJ Ballentyne (Dave Turner) is the 50-something year-old proprietor of the struggling Old Oak tavern, fraught with problems like a broken sign, unreliable plumbing, and an unused reception room filled with memorabilia that makes the space resemble a forgotten attic. All is good until what many in the community view as “trouble” comes to town in the form of immigrants pushed out of war-torn Syria, needing a new place to call home. The unwelcoming committee consists of a patron of The Old Oak who comes out to gawk at the newcomers as they exit their bus. In addition to the usual racist jibes, the grown man snatches a child’s Nikon-era camera and purposefully drops it on the ground, destroying both the camera and its contents.

In terms of demographics, the neighborhood around The Old Oak reminds me of that in the HBO series, Mare of Easttown. It is predominantly White with an appearance here and there of persons of color. Also, like Mare of Easttown, The Old Oak consists largely of overcast skies with a hint of early fall weather. Here though, the weather seems to suggest pervasive hardship in the community. The poor condition of TJ’s tavern and patrons’ frequent complaints about mine closures and barely getting by indicate that the town has fallen on hard times. Thus, the weather plays a role in the film, serving as an intervening variable to help explain the resistance of some residents to their new neighbors. While this can be viewed as an excuse for the behavior of some, the community members make familiar points about immigrants not being taken to more affluent areas to live, where the utility infrastructure, schools, and housing resources are relatively plentiful. 

Finally, unlike Mare of Easttown, the characters in The Old Oak lack energy. Even those who are vindictive have sedate personalities despite their sharp tongues. What adds a bit of energy to the movie is 20-something-year-old Yara (Ebla Mari), who demonstrates tenacity and spunk when she enters the tavern looking for the bully who broke her camera. Covering for his patron, TJ offers to purchase a new camera, but Yara insists (paraphrasing) “I don’t want a new one, I want this one.” Yara’s assertiveness is contrary to the quiet and docile demeanor we have come to expect of newly arriving residents. Here, her action constitutes a subtle but likely empowering moment for people pushed out of their homelands into a new country that is hostile towards them. She, in effect, symbolizes the importance of immigrants’ getting past the fear of the new, so that townspeople are forced to see them as human too.

Sometimes, what is construed as racist is really a reflection of cultural dissonance. For instance, when Yara helps a sick girl home, the mother arrives and angrily kicks Yara out. Some might view the mother’s behavior as racist, but it is also a normal response from a parent who finds an unfamiliar adult in her home with her kids. Culturally, Yara likely did not view entering the home as a problem; after all, she was just helping the young girl. But out of deference to the culture she has entered into, she needs, in essence, to learn to respect the space and privacy of the residents. Thank goodness for the gun restrictions in Britain, or this situation could have ended very badly.

What The Old Oak conveys is the significance that food and sharing a table with others can have in making connections. This is exemplified in a scene where Yara and her mother, Fatima (Amna Al Ali) bring food to TJ at his home after learning about a loss he experiences. TJ heads to the cabinet to retrieve three plates, when Fatima insists that he bring only one for himself. Perplexed, he does as he is told. After dishing the food onto his plate, Fatima tells him (paraphrasing) “Eat, don’t talk.” Confused, he complies. 

The director sits in this tender, generous moment as if to convey to us the power of silence at a shared table in achieving mutual understanding and grace. Indeed, the scene reminds me of the movie, Soul Food, where an African American family comes together every Sunday to share a meal of traditional soul food. This regular sharing of a meal strengthens their bond, even through tough times. As in Soul Food, the food and sharing of space in The Old Oak facilitates relationships and a deepening sense of appreciation for one another.

To improve relations in the community, Yara suggests to TJ that they clean up the bar’s backroom and use it to cook and serve meals to anyone in the neighborhood who wishes to come by. Over time, we see people from across the community talking, sharing stories, and laughing while enjoying a meal. We feel tensions loosen between long-time residents and immigrants across age groups.


Some people might describe The Old Oak as an idealistic story, but it is important to consider its context. The UK, for example, does not have the level of violence that we do here in the U.S. Ownership of weapons in the UK is severely restricted, and even Bobbies (British police officers) carry batons instead of guns. This leaves British residents to make use of their fists, knives, and verbal skills to deal with frustrations and conflicts. Because the likelihood of people surviving these forms of aggression is high relative to attacks with firearms, people can be less afraid to take risks.


Also regarding context, the town in The Old Oak is a small one, which suggests that communication can occur by word of mouth or via local establishments where residents tend to gather. Announcements of regular get-togethers at a popular local establishment are productive in garnering decent crowds, which can grow over time and vary in attendees much like block parties, local festivals, kids’ activities, and gatherings at houses of worship in the neighborhoods of big cities. The familiarity gained by being in one another’s company while enjoying an activity loved by many (eating) is more likely to breed understanding and even affection, than alienation and contempt.

While The Old Oak could benefit from more cultural diversity in the film, it successfully conveys another way of achieving harmony among neighbors. Like a dessert menu, it deserves consideration.

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