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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
Pub landlord TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner) is suffering a Job-like ordeal: he is divorced and depressed with a grownup son who doesn’t speak to him. The Old Oak is the name of his pub, the one community meeting place in a deprived north-eastern former mining town – and it is in dire need of refurbishment. His regulars are seething with rage, livid at the collapse in house prices and brooding over YouTube videos about immigrants. They are seething at neighbouring properties being bought for a song by real estate companies and rented out exploitatively, thus collapsing the value of the homes they’d hoped would effectively cushion their retirement, and strip-mining value from the community. Then a busload of terrified Syrians arrives and the tension gets worse.
Yara (Ebla Mari) is one of them. She is a young Syrian woman housed with her brother and elderly mother, desperate for news of her father, imprisoned by the Assad regime. TJ finds a gentle friendship with her, sneeringly misinterpreted by some drinkers. There is a very moving scene where he takes her to see Durham Cathedral; she is deeply affected by listening to the choir and awed by the thousand-year-old building. She ponders the fact that she will never again see the temples at Palmyra, built by the Romans and destroyed by Islamic State. And Loach and screenwriter Laverty fervently argue that through solidarity and a recognition of real interests, British people can naturally show empathy to immigrants and refugees.
As ever, Loach shows himself to be the John Bunyan of social realism – or perhaps the Gerrard Winstanley or William Everard of the cinema. He is the fierce plain-speaker of political indignation with a style that is unironed and unadorned, shot by Robbie Ryan in simple daylit fashion, using first timers and non-professionals in front of the camera. Thirty years ago, the mischief makers of Lars von Trier and Dogme 95 were talking about radical minimalism. They didn’t stick to it; Loach did. I hope that this isn’t Loach’s final film, but if it is, he has concluded with a ringing statement of faith in compassion for the oppressed.