23rd October 2023

If you’re familiar with the work of the film director Ken Loach, you’ll know that his politics are decidedly left-wing and his sympathies ever lie with the underdog. His films expose the injustices and indignities endured by those at the bottom of the heap, their best efforts to help themselves frequently hindered and undermined by ‘the way things are’, not least economic and social welfare systems not entirely fit for purpose.

Loach’s latest film (and purported to be his last) is ‘The Old Oak’, a story set around a pub in a left-behind Durham pit village in 2016. The place and its people are run-down and depressed; life is a constant struggle, and it’s only too easy to give up hope or to retreat into self-pitying bitterness. To this unhappy mix is introduced a group of Syrian refugees, and it’s no surprise that their initial reception is far from welcoming.

Ken Loach never shrinks from challenging his audience, and there are indeed some scenes painful to watch, but it seems to me he isn’t in the business of simply wanting to shock. This tough but ultimately beautiful film is essentially about compassion, an emotion we begin to see demonstrated by certain characters as they reach out a hand to help others struggling with life as they themselves are. Mistakes are made, and people don’t suddenly become saints, but if the situation remains dire, hope is reborn, its flame flickering into life despite the cold winds of political indifference and decades of repeated disappointment. Loach is reminding us that compassion turned into action on behalf of others can bring its own small miracles.

Ken Stewart