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CANNES 2023 Competition

Review: The Old Oak

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- CANNES 2023: Ken Loach’s new title contains not an ounce of cynicism – just hope

Review: The Old Oak
Ebla Mari in The Old Oak

Ken Loach is 86 years old, and he believes in people. That’s it. That could be the entire review. He believes in them to the extent that it could make one uncomfortable, then suspicious, then, I don’t know, maybe actually a bit hopeful, too.

It’s not because he is naïve; he has seen way too much. Loach believes in people because he wants to, because it’s a choice. It’s really not that complicated at all. You can choose to help others or you can choose not to do so at all. Curiously, it’s the more mature filmmakers who believe the world is worth saving this year at the Cannes Film Festival, just like Aki Kaurismäki – even despite all these wars. The young ones, meanwhile, think it’s already on fire.

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If The Old Oak [+see also:
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– shown in Competition – is really Loach’s last, it’s pretty much his wishlist for the future. Things probably won’t get any easier, and the vitriol will keep on pouring, online and off. So, will you be fighting any possible change, spitting out insults from a barstool, saying “I am not a racist, but…,” or using it to make things better? Again, it’s a choice. TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner) has to consider that, too.

He is not one for big gestures, this sad man; he is all about quiet kindness. When a “busload” of Syrian refugees arrives in his village, he simply picks up a camera someone has broken. It belongs to Yara (Ebla Mari), it’s one of the things she values the most, and soon, an unlikely buddy movie is born.

These two understand each other surprisingly well. TJ remembers when his village was an entirely different place, buzzing with life and with miners. She remembers when her country was different as well. There is no use in dwelling on it for too long, although Loach gives his characters some time to grieve. They have to move on and make these darn choices. Even TJ, who has been “asleep” for years, he admits.

Turner’s performance really tugs at the heart strings. He is not a saviour – he could use some saving himself. But he has already made his mistakes and lost his family, so perhaps he is a bit wiser now. Or at least he has become gentler, calmer, caring for his “daft little dog”, Marra, that has literally saved him. They would be content together, going through their days quietly, but that’s just not going to happen. It’s getting loud in the village, too loud to pretend not to hear.

Loach isn’t always that sentimental – but he certainly is here. He makes a statement out of it, actually. It’s hard to share his optimism, frankly, or completely fall for lines stating, “In life, sometimes there is no need for words – just food.” So far, so Eat Pray Love.

Still, a call for “solidarity, not charity” makes sense. People don’t want to be pitied; they want to be seen and to feel included. They want to sit in a pub that’s barely standing and wait for another day that will surely bring more despair. They want to do this together. In Loach’s world, it’s probably not about claiming that everything is perfectly fine. It’s about making sure that when it’s not, you won’t be completely alone.

The Old Oak was written by Paul Laverty. It is a British-French-Belgian co-production staged by Sixteen Oak Limited, together with the BBC, France 2 Cinéma, Why Not Productions, Les Films du Fleuve, the BFI and Goodfellas, with the latter also handling the international sales.

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Photogallery 27/05/2023: Cannes 2023 - The Old Oak

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Ken Loach, Paul Laverty, Ebla Mari, Dave Turner, Claire Rodgerson
© 2023 Fabrizio de Gennaro for Cineuropa - fadege.it, @fadege.it

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