The Old Oak, distributed by StudioCanal UK, in in cinemas now
The Old Oak, distributed by StudioCanal UK, in in cinemas now

Lynda McEwan, Socialist Party Scotland

Ken Loach’s new film, and by his own admission probably his last, The Old Oak is a masterpiece of working-class solidarity.

Set in northern England in a once-thriving mining town, it depicts the life of pub landlord, TJ, his struggle with mental health after a marriage breakdown, his desperate attempts to keep The Old Oak running, and of navigating the arrival of a group of Syrian refugees to the community.

After years of Tory austerity, the town and its residents have been completely demoralised. Poverty is rife and any real or perceived violation of their resources is met with suspicion and mistrust.

It is against this backdrop that Syrian refugees arrive and are housed in empty houses.

This causes reactionary and racist attitudes from some of the people to emerge, however TJ and others welcome the refugees, in particular striking up an endearing friendship with Yara, a young Syrian woman with a keen interest in photography.

Loach is an expert at portraying working-class lives, the struggle and misery but also the determination and unity that co-exist under capitalism.

In The Old Oak he shows how racism can take hold in working-class communities. That they’re not innate, but fostered by the ruling class and its control of the media. Being drip-fed sensational ‘them and us’ headlines coupled with the devastation of more than a decade of cuts creates the conditions for xenophobia to spread.

TJ and others manage to win round most of the community through setting up a food kitchen in the backroom of The Old Oak, which helps not only their new neighbours but those residents struggling to feed their families too. This type of action is limited though. Trade union action could decisively cut across the racial tension and give the people the confidence to fight for more money for the town. 

The film finishes with hundreds of people coming to pay their condolences to Yara and her family after the news that her father has been killed in Syria, a tradition of old mining towns when one of their own dies.

The closing scene is of them all at the Durham Mining Gala carrying a banner made by the Syrian refugees in a poignant display of working-class solidarity.

A beautiful and emotional film, we need a new working-class filmmaker for Loach to pass on the baton.