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‘The Old Oak’ searches for common ground

“The Old Oak” (2023). Cast: Dave Turner, Ebla Mari, Claire Rodgerson, Trevor Fox, Chris McGlade, Chrissie Robinson, Jen Patterson, Ruby Bratton, Alex White, Jordan Louis, Col Tait, Chris Gotts, Amna Al Ali. Director: Ken Loach. Screenplay: Paul Laverty. Web site. Trailer.

Getting along with others sometimes isn’t easy, even under the best of circumstances. Differences – of almost any kind – can become obstacles that impede communications and understanding, potentially making relations between individuals and groups problematic or even impossible. But conditions need not remain that way if we make an effort to get past them, an undertaking that generally calls for finding common ground and seeking solidarity. That process can be challenging, too, but it can open the door to finding a workable solution, an undertaking explored in the inspiring English drama, “The Old Oak.”

In 2016, as countless Syrian refugees fled the civil war and widespread human rights violations in their homeland, many began making their way to Europe to seek safety and a place to start over. Many had lost everything, and once-tight-knit families were torn apart. They suffered great losses and tremendous indignities, and hope was a commodity that was hard to come by. But, for those who were fortunate enough to find ways to begin anew, the prospect of relocation, sanctuary and safety offered promise for the future. They looked upon these opportunities with gratitude and optimism. However, despite this hopefulness, these chances for a fresh start were not without challenges.

Given the limited resources of the refugees and of public authorities seeking to accommodate the tremendous influx of new arrivals, the expense of absorbing waves of immigrants became a critical consideration for those providing care. So, quite understandably, locales with resources like affordable housing became leading candidates for resettlement.

One such area was northern England, a once-thriving center for coal mining that had been in gradual economic decline for decades. The region’s financial slide, unfortunately, had a profound effect on the fiscal well-being of the locals. At the same time, though, the region’s downturn also made available reasonably priced accommodations for the refugees, especially in small towns, many of which were characterized by conservative working class populations. Because of these demographic and economic shifts, busloads of refugees began arriving in these communities, a development that the displaced enthusiastically welcomed but that area residents looked on with skepticism and suspicion.

Pub owner Tommy Joe “TJ” Ballantyne (Dave Turner), owner of The Old Oak, a neighborhood in a small northern England town, faces an array of challenges to stay open and keep his customers happy in the latest (and supposedly final) film from legendary director Ken Loach, “The Old Oak,” available for streaming online. Photo by Joss Barratt, courtesy of Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber.

The flood of newly arrived strangers with ways that were unfamiliar to the locals raised more than a few eyebrows – and tempers – among the established population. Area residents were afraid that the refugees would take away what few economic opportunities were available and would cause property values to plummet. Consequently, those who were simply seeking basic shelter and a new beginning became targets for prejudice, bias and abuse. So much for a warm welcome to the neighborhood.

This latest offering from legendary director Ken Loach tells a compelling tale drawn from circumstances like those discussed above, set in a small town not far from the English city of Durham. However, while many of the locals in this story either openly adhere to the aforementioned intolerant views or half-heartedly try to distance themselves from them with lame rationalizations to the contrary, not everyone agrees with these scornful, unflattering outlooks. One of them is Tommy Joe “TJ” Ballantyne (Dave Turner), owner of The Old Oak, a local pub that has become the primary meeting place for area residents over the years. As one of the last-remaining venues for public gatherings, the pub is the principal forum for community “discussion,” much of which takes a decidedly darker tone when the subject of the immigrants comes up. And, through it all, TJ is present to hear what his customers have to say, nearly all of which he quietly disagrees with.

TJ’s social and political views are considerably more progressive than those of many of the pub’s regulars, an outlook he developed as a teen when witnessing the unfair labor policies and practices inflicted upon local coal miners by the Margaret Thatcher government in the 1980s. But, despite this more broad-minded perspective, he generally holds his tongue when his regulars began mouthing off about the new arrivals. He somehow manages to keep quiet when routinely subjected to the ongoing vocal complaints offered up by longtime regulars like Charlie (Trevor Fox), Vic (Chris McGlade) and Garry (Jordan Louis). They routinely ridicule and rail against the Syrians, often using unsavory language and disparaging names in describing them. And, even though TJ and his business have been seriously affected by the same economic slide as many of his neighbors, he never looks for a scapegoat for his troubles – especially the refugees. He can appreciate the hardships they endured, and he isn’t about to add to their burden by placing blame on them for something that wasn’t their fault. In fact, TJ actually walks his talk when it comes to his own brand of social activism. For example, he seeks to ease the refugees’ suffering by helping his friend, Laura (Claire Rodgerson), as a volunteer for a charity she runs that supplies them with basic necessities for everyday living.

Syrian refugee Yara (Ebla Mari, center), an aspiring photographer, seeks to bring together her immigrant peers and local residents of a small town in northern England in the uplifting new drama, “The Old Oak.” Photo by Joss Barratt, courtesy of Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber.

Not long after a group of refugees arrives in town, TJ’s intervention on their behalf is significantly stepped up when he comes to the aid of Yara (Ebla Mari), a young Syrian woman and aspiring photographer, when she’s harassed by one of the locals. They subsequently become friends and work to promote better relations between the locals and the new arrivals. They look for ways to help the two communities find solidarity through common ground. For instance, both area residents and the Syrians have experienced difficulties in which they’ve suffered material losses. If anything, they believe that those shared ordeals should serve as the basis for drawing everyone together, not drive them apart. Those experiences, they contend, should unify them and give them strength, providing mutual support to help them move forward in their lives. And engaging in simple gestures like sharing a meal together can go a long way toward helping to forge those bonds, bringing individuals together who once believed that such developments would never happen.

Itʼs amazing what we can accomplish when we put our minds to it, provided we believe in the idea. And that’s precisely where the residents – both old and new – of this small English town need to put their focus. That’s because our beliefs play a crucial role in manifesting the existence we experience, an outcome made possible by the conscious creation process, the philosophy that accounts for the materialization of the world around us. It’s not clear how many of the characters in this story have heard of this way of thinking, but they seem to have some grasp over how its principles work. And, if they ever hope for a better tomorrow, it would be in their best interests to brush up on the concepts that make it work.

There are several disparate constituencies involved in the unfolding of this story. First, there are the refugees, who are desperately in search of an opportunity to start over. And, considering the great lengths they’ve gone to in trying to find a new home, they must place a lot of faith in that notion. But, as events materialize, they sincerely believe that the outcome will result, despite whatever difficulties may emerge along the way, and they’ve collectively and individually directed their intents on seeing that happen.

Pub owner Tommy Joe “TJ” Ballantyne (Dave Turner) dotes on his closest pal, Marra (Lola the dog), in an otherwise-lonely life in “The Old Oak,” the latest offering from legendary filmmaker Ken Loach, available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber.

Then there are the locals, who are mistrustful of the new arrivals, especially when it comes to the prospect of possibly losing what they’ve spent many years building for themselves. Their beliefs passionately reflect that skepticism, and it frequently shows up in their comments and behavior. And, given how much they’ve already lost over the years, their suspicions are somewhat understandable. However, at the same time, they’ve allowed these beliefs to cloud their judgment, camouflaging the bigger picture of what’s going on. Most notably, they’ve become blind to the fact that the refugees in many ways are in the same boat as them – if not worse. If they could come to see that, they might subsequently realize that the “strangers” aren’t as different from them as they think. That commonality thus provides a point of reference that they can build upon in forging a new relationship with one another, the very essence of common ground. Indeed, as an old, time-honored saying maintains, “None of us is as strong as all of us.” With that in mind, then, there’s no telling what these individuals – or any of us, for that matter – can collectively attain.

But, if these two groups are to truly come together, someone needs to act as a facilitator, an individual who embodies the beliefs necessary to bring everyone into the fold. Fortunately, there are several people in this story who can help make that possible. TJ, Yara and Laura are the most obvious candidates, as are TJ’s bartender, Maggie (Jen Patterson), Yara’s mother, Fatima (Amna Al Ali), and a plucky teen, Linda (Ruby Bratton). They urge unity by bringing new and old residents together so that they can get to know one another better and to discover that they may have more in common than initially thought.

Over time, the dividends from this obviously become apparent on a community-wide level. But they also provide benefits to individuals, most notably TJ, thanks to the beliefs he holds and what they manifest for him. These developments represent a turnaround for him. He’s had his fair share of hardships over the years, and he’s always blamed himself for their emergence. For starters, there are his financial difficulties in keeping The Old Oak open, conditions that have become so serious that he’s had to close off the pub’s private party room because he can’t afford the liability insurance to keep it in operation. It has since fallen into disrepair, serving as a storage area. Then there are the issues in his personal life, such as the loneliness that has stemmed from his divorce from a woman he dearly loved and his estrangement from his only child, a son. In fact, his only real companion is his adoring canine friend, Marra (Lola), a stray who unexpectedly appeared at a particularly low point in his life, giving him a renewed sense of purpose and hope for a brighter future. (As TJ explains it, the dog’s name comes from an old coal miner’s term used to describe a friend who always has one’s back, especially in times of need, a name befitting of the lovable pooch given how the two met. It also aptly describes TJ himself and the expanded role he has since come to assume in the lives of the residents of his community.)

The unlikely friendship between Syrian refugee Yara (Ebla Mari, left) and English pub owner Tommy Joe “TJ” Ballantyne (Dave Turner, right) sets an example for what’s possible when two individuals find common ground, as seen in “The Old Oak.” Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber.

This positive reversal in TJ’s fortunes gives him a reason to soldier on, a boost undoubtedly tied to his beliefs in such a possibility, even if he doesn’t cognizantly recognize their presence or impact at the time these changes begin emerging in his life. And this development flourishes when he receives some much-needed assistance, thanks to Yara’s enthusiasm in promoting community unity. Those efforts prove beneficial for both TJ’s business and his spirits, such as when Yara encourages him to draw upon a valuable lesson he learned in his youth. During the coal miners’ labor issues in the 1980s, TJ’s mother urged the strikers to start their days during work stoppages by gathering for a group meal, a gesture designed to strengthen their resolve and commitment to their cause – and one that left quite an impression on a youthful TJ. When TJ shares this story with Yara, she, in turn, implores him to follow suit by organizing a series of free community meals for the locals and the new arrivals, prepared by those same individuals and served in the pub’s private party room, which the participants help him clean and renovate. These events lead to more customers (and more business) for The Old Oak, as well as a greater sense of personal satisfaction for TJ. It’s quite a simple yet eminently successful co-creation, one of many that spring to life as a result of these collaborators finding common ground.

The foregoing examples illustrate what can be achieved by finding unity in one’s beliefs. However, this is not to suggest that everything proceeds swimmingly. Initiatives like these invariably have learning curves associated with them as all the participants in these scenarios seek to refine their intents. Challenges are part of the mix, too, such as the surly attitudes TJ faces in connection with some of his curmudgeonly regulars. They’re angered, for example, when he refuses to let them use the party room for a meeting to protest the refugees’ presence. They point out that they’ve been loyal customers over the years and threaten to stop supporting the pub if he holds out against them. But TJ realizes that such negative beliefs won’t yield the kinds of positive outcomes he’s hoping for, the risk of lost business notwithstanding. He reasons that, considering there are essentially no other drinking establishments in town, the locals are likely to back down on their ill-considered demand. Indeed, blowing smoke often doesn’t get anyone anywhere.

For all these setbacks, though, there are unexpected victories to be had, too, especially when a shift in public attitudes begins to settle in. That happens, for example, when Linda’s mother, Erica (Chrissie Robinson), has a change of heart about Yara. One day, while Linda is participating at a school sporting event that Yara is photographing, the teen falls ill. Yara escorts her home and helps to make her comfortable, getting her something to eat from the family kitchen. As Yara searches the cupboards for food, Erica walks in on her, outraged that this stranger is rummaging through her cabinets. Both Yara and Linda attempt to explain what happened, but Erica will have none of it, hastily ejecting Yara from her home. However, when Erica calms down and takes the time to hear what her daughter has to say, she does an abrupt about-face. Shortly thereafter, when Erica and Yara have a chance public encounter, Erica apologizes profusely – an act that leads to a new friendship between the two. Once again, solidarity wins the day.

Simple gestures like sharing a meal together can go a long way toward forging solidarity, an idea inspired by Syrian refugee Yara (Ebla Mari, center) as seen in filmmaker Ken Loach’s “The Old Oak.” Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber.

A lack of familiarity can produce so many needless problems, especially when it involves individuals about whom we know little or nothing. That lack of understanding can consequently yield issues that plainly aren’t warranted and, more importantly, can be easily dispensed with by simply taking the time to find common ground. Such is the case in what is said to be the final film from legendary director Ken Loach. The unity that emerges among the various constituencies in this film helps bring people together who might not do so otherwise were it not for their efforts to find harmony and shared aims. The style of filmmaking and narrative themes in this offering are classic Ken Loach, recalling many of the works this prolific director has made for nearly 60 years in such films as “Jimmy’s Hall” (2014), “I, Daniel Blake” (2016) and “Sorry We Missed You” (2019), among others. In many ways, “The Old Oak” feels like the perfect send-off for this thought-provoking artist. Some story elements are, admittedly, rather predictable, and the ending feels somewhat truncated and abrupt, with a few story threads that aren’t fully resolved. Nevertheless, the filmmaker makes the kind of parting summation statement that he’s incorporated in his other noteworthy works about the perils of the downtrodden, the need to help them and the necessity for fostering an intrinsic sense of fairness in the lives of us all. And what better way is there for a talent like Loach to say his final goodbye.

While this film hasn’t earned quite as many accolades as his prior efforts, the work has not gone unnoticed. “The Old Oak” was a 2023 Cannes Film Festival nominee for the Palme d’Or, the event’s highest honor. In addition, the picture was a 2023 BAFTA Award nominee for Outstanding British Film. This offering previously played the film festival circuit and had a brief and limited theatrical run but is now available for streaming online from multiple sources, as well as on home media.

If more of us made the kind of effort employed by hopeful souls like TJ, Yara and their kindreds, the world would be a very different place. Indeed, imagine an existence in which we all get along and don’t have to deal with the harmful effects of unnecessary prejudice, discrimination and inequality. Instead, we’d have a reality based on respect, cooperation and mutual support. What we need to recognize, however, is that manifesting a paradigm built on such attributes begins with us, most notably in our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And that’s what needs to change if we ever hope to realize such a result. It seems worth it, but we have to want that to happen. The question, of course, is, do we? Maybe we should consider drawing from the example set by “The Old Oak.” After all, what do we have to lose except what we’re already trying to rid from our lives?

Copyright © 2024, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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