The Old Oak Ken Loach; script Paul Laverty (UK; 2023) Dave Turner, Ebla Mari
viewed Tyneside Cinema 2nd Oct 2023; ticket £11.75
watch the birdie
Set in a small ex-mining town in North East England Loach and Laverty’s film begins with the idea of unseen forces. In the opening sequence of ‘The Old Oak’ we see a workman removing the ‘For Sale’ signs hanging over a couple of properties in a run down terrace. Some of the residents question the workman. From his replies they understand what’s going on. People who already have had their town stripped of its industry and employment are now experiencing the final nail in their coffin as they witness property, houses in their own streets bought up by anonymous foreign investors and reduced to junk value. Unseen forces ruthlessly extracting the last remnants of value out of a community that has been left to rot down.
Ken Loach/Laverty films are always vehicles for their beliefs about social justice. But their films are all the better when their beliefs are underpinned and served by ideas derived from the nature of the actual forces enfolded into the machinations of contemporary life. My feeling is that they only rarely achieve this synthesis leaving many of their films as simplistic playouts of moral social themes that unravel as expressions of sentimentality embued with nostalgia for past certainties.
One recent noticeable product of this partnership was: ‘Sorry we missed you…’ which probed the situation of a low income family in which both parents were employed in high pressure service industries: Rickie working as a contracted out zero hours delivery driver, and his wife, Abbie, as a peripatetic care worker. The film as it develops is characterised by the malevolent influences of omnipresent but distanced agents: the unseen managers with demands completely removed from the reality of the work; the mobile phones which jingle and jangle their nerves, controlling the pace of the day and making ever increasing demands on their capabilities; and of course the unseen psychic force that is ever present in their life: fear. Fear that the financial house of cards on which their family’s viability is based might at any time collapse. ‘Sorry we missed you’ works because of the tension between its protagonists and the unseen.
After its opening sequence, ‘The Old Oak’ in contrast to ‘Sorry I missed you…’ moves into the mode of presence, that is to say ‘seen’ oppositons glazed with concomitant sentimentality.
The unannounced arrival in the town of a group of Syrian refugees who have been allocated housing in the depopulated terraces of the town is the catalyst provoking division in the community. The latter were of course not consulted, never informed, but had to deal pre-emptorily with the situation of in-comers whose sudden appearance is yet another confirmation of their powerlessness and emasculation. The Syrians are another reason for the anger and resentment felt by some of the inhabitants, which they direct not at the hidden agents of the decision, but at the pawns in the game, the refugees.
The plotting of Loach’s film focuses on the development of both: the relationship between TJ, a local man, a ‘good man’ the publican of The Old Oak, and Yara, the young woman Syrian incomer; and the charting of the conflict between the pro and anti-refugee factions in the town. These script lines are brought together with TJ’s decision to develop the pub as an inclusive social centre for newcomers and original inhabitants. Both these strands of the script are characterised by a certain mechanicality, straight line scripting and a reluctance to develop significant events inserted into the film’s scenario.
The oppositional elements between those supportive of the refugees and those resentful of them are characterised by presence. We see the two sides of the town that are in opposition. But the script fails to deliver the tensions of presence, rather it delivers moments of confrontation, but doesn’t even always develop these moments with any weight. For instance inserted into the scenario is a nasty vicious assault on a Syrian schoolboy. But the attack on the young boy, graphically shown, is not developed by the script: its documented but then glossed over, by-passed, finally forgotten, slipping out of the film’s arc of consciousness. The feeling is that Loach/Laverty were reluctant to examine the type of specific physical jeopody to which refugees can be exposed, in particular if they are young. For the most part the oppositional scenes between TJ and the regulars resolve in the script as harangues shouting matches that blow themselves out. There is of course the act of sabotage by the resentful locals but even this seems to beg the question as to why the grudge that triggered the act had not had its place in the scripted clashes between TJ and the ‘regulars.’
Yara rather than developing as a medium for introducing unseen elements into scenario is made into an instrument of sentimentality, a touchstone for nostalgia, rather than an individual in her own right. She’s ultimately a Disneyfied character, a sort of fairy godmother. Like most Disney creations Yara feels de-contextualised, as Laverty’s script has taken taken most of the Syrian out of her, the which vacuum is not remedied by the constant references to her father’s plight. Yara registers as a deus ex-machina, sprinkling fairy dust over TJ’s pub transforming it from a static pumpkin into a moving community carriage. It’s fairy tale posing as faux social realism a feeling compounded by the penultimate scene where on news of Yara’s father’s death the whole town graduates towards her house to pay their respects. Again it reminded me of those Disney films in which when one of the central animal characters dies, all the creatures of the forest foregather to mourn.
The admix of unashamed filmic sentimentality nostalgia and social concern is the core driving vision of Loach and Laverty’s work. But whether these two strands can coalesce effectively or whether they simply cancel each other out leaving the scripts as dull husks, is a moot question.