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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The Old Oak movie review & film summary (2024)

There are almost always scenes in Loach’s films where a group of locals gathers in a shared public space to argue about issues that affect all of them. The space here is the bar of the title, owned and operated by TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner), who also spearheads a local charity with his wife Laura (Claire Rodgerson) that gives donated secondhand furniture and other household items to recently arrived immigrants who escaped the war in Syria with just the clothes on their backs. Dave is a goodhearted and tough but depressed man who lost his wife and son many years ago and dotes on his little dog. He has grown increasingly disenchanted with his core group of patrons, a bunch of men his age who blame immigrants for a steady decline in living standards that predates the newcomers’ arrival by decades. There’s even a gallery of photos in a shuttered back room of the bar commemorating local labor struggles back when TJ was a teenager and Durham was still built around coal mining. 

The film begins, like many Loach movies, by dropping you into the middle of a conflict. A group of Syrians have arrived in town by bus and are being harassed by white locals (some of whom apparently aren’t even from the neighborhood; hate tourists, basically). One of the refugees is a teenager named Yara (Ebla Mari), a budding photojournalist who shoots the old-fashioned way, on 35mm film. She documents her family’s arrival, including their harassment by the xenophobes telling them to go back to a country that’s already shattered their spirits (Yara’s father is missing and presumed dead). One of the bullies steals Yara’s camera and turns it on the newcomers and then, when confronted, gleefully drops it on the pavement, breaking it. 

This sparks the beginning of Yara’s relationship with TJ, which ultimately forms the backbone of “The Old Oak” and unites the different story strands, and the fractured community as well. TJ invites Yara into the back gathering room of his bar, which hasn’t been used in decades due to plumbing and electrical problems and offers her a replacement 35mm camera from a collection that once belonged to his late uncle, who took most of the photos of the town’s mining heyday that now hang framed on the walls. The film takes its sweet time perusing those pictures and even lets TJ give Yara a little guided tour through time and space as they look at them. We get the sense of the weight of the past (always a factor in Loach’s movies, whether the past is nostalgically fantasized and false or based on something real, which is the case here) and also of the mercurial present. Thus begins a curious, believable, and often quietly powerful story consisting of simply written and blocked scenes that explore the dynamics of the town. 

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HomeReviewsThe Old Oak movie review & film summary (2024)

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