Ken Loach, a veteran social critic, seeks optimism in ‘The Old Oak’    

TJ Ballantyne is a classic Ken Loach hero: a working-class, middle-aged man attempting to make a decent life but facing barriers at every turn, a victim of cruel societal realities that put him behind.  

TJ, like many Loach heroes, can't escape gravity, as he tries to restore the wooden letter “K” above the Old Oak, the derelict bar he operates in a former mining town in decline for decades. That letter keeps leaning downward, even when TJ repairs it with a broomstick. It falls again when he turns away.  

At the conclusion of his filmmaking career, why should Loach start being subtle with his messaging? The 87-year-old director, who has directed over 30 films, believes “The Old Oak” is his last. His statement is repeated, but if it's true, the film provides a touching conclusion to a lifetime exposing human indignities amid poverty and unemployment.  

Finally, the migrant crisis. Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty confront this through TJ's odd connection with Yara, a young Syrian refugee who arrives in town with her family to the disdain of many. TJ and his struggling villagers are not the neediest in the story. Others require greater aid. In this tale of two conflicting villages, Loach hopes to complete a trilogy set in northeastern England with conciliation and hope.  

We start near Durham in 2016. As in other European countries, Syrian war refugees are arriving in Britain, and some have been transferred to a rundown old mining town with cheap housing. Some people are upset about the invasion. In a heartbreaking pre-credits scene, the locals mock the refugee busload, saying they weren't warned. “Who are they? Their origin? More Muslims?" people shout, cursing. Others, like TJ and family friend Laura, assist settle families.  

Young 20s Yara (Ebla Mari) arrives with her mother. Her father, who is either in Syria or dead, gave her a camera, which she uses to capture her arrival. An irate football jersey-wearing man fights her and breaks her camera.

Loach and Laverty found numerous pubs in former mining towns closed throughout their research. The Old Oak is the town's only tavern and gathering place in their story. Over TJ's drinks, his childhood friends Charlie, whose wife is ill and whose house has dropped in value, and Vic and Eddy, the angriest, gripe about the intruders. “We can’t even take care of our own kids,” they say.  

Transition is ugly. Schoolboys are bullied. When a local girl gets sick, Yara takes her home to rest, but the mother comes home and brutally kicks the young Syrian out.  

Things go worse for TJ, whose marriage failed and he's estranged from his son. His lone friend is a lovely former stray dog who emerged in his lowest time. Thugs' dogs menace her. He barely hangs onto his pub as a former miner. Now, some locals want to meet in his empty back room to complain about newcomers. He offers excuses.  

TJ offers to utilize the rear room to serve free meals to promote community and honor labor unrest decades earlier, which causes more controversy. This works well for many, but the town's more hostile voices, in scenes that sometimes appear heavy-handed, continue to stir division and harass the Syrians while denying racism. “All we want is our pub back,” they say.  

The Old Oak, which becomes the village's tie to a happy past, a significant part of a turbulent present, and a possible promise for a harmonious future, gets worse. The concluding sequences are filled with hope, unlike many Loach films. Yes, too many lectures sound like speeches rather than discussion. Resolution comes too swiftly and readily.  

However, these sins appear forgiveable. Hope is a good way to end nearly 60 years of filming. The Motion Picture Association has not rated Zeitgeist Films' "The Old Oak." Runtime: 113 minutes. Three stars out of four.  

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