Tommy Joe Ballantyne (Dave Turner), the central character in Ken Loach’s “The Old Oak,” is a middle-aged landlord and proprietor of a pub that sits near the bottom of a sloped street of working-class row houses. We’re in an unnamed village in the northeast of England, and the pub, called the Old Oak, has seen better days. So has Tommy, who’s known as TJ. Dave Turner, the very good actor who plays him, resembles a bone-weary cross between John C. Reilly and Michael Moore. There’s a sweet-souled directness to his sad prole stare, and he treats his customers, some of whom he has known since they were in grade school together, with quiet affection and respect. But the pub is falling apart, and the property values in the neighborhood have plunged. TJ is barely scraping by serving pints of ale.
In Boston, I knew a bartender at an Irish pub named Tommy who was the nicest man on earth, but when you looked into his eyes you saw a sorrow, rooted in the black Irish mist, that seemed to stretch back for generations. TJ’s stretches back at least to his father, who was a coal miner, like everyone else in town; so was TJ. The miners worked their thankless jobs in the pit, but they had each other, and they had the union. Their ability to strike, starting with the big one in 1969, gave them a sense of solidarity, even if the fight against management didn’t work out as well as it should have. But with the pits now closed down and the mining economy collapsed, the people in TJ’s pub are living on fumes. They still come in for a “friendly” pint, but the place is less “Cheers” than jeers. And part of what they’re disgruntled about is that the last thing they have left — that sense of community — is, to them, being torn away by the refugees who are moving into neighborhood hostels.
The film opens with Yara (Ebla Mari), who has just arrived with her family from Syria, taking photographs from inside a bus — we see the black-and-white pictures as she snaps them — then getting her camera smashed by a racist bully. TJ, who feels bad about it, has some old cameras in the back that he offers her. Beyond that, the reason they start talking is that there’s an inner mournfulness that connects them. Yara is vibrant, and a gifted shutterbug, but she and her mother and siblings have escaped the Assad regime; the rumor is that her father was killed by it. We hear these kinds of stories all the time, but Ebla Mari, the actor who plays Yara, makes Yara’s despair over her missing and possibly murdered father, and her agony at having had to abandon her country, incredibly layered and precise. Her performance doesn’t allow us to phone in our empathy.
TJ is a lot nicer to Yara and her family than his mates at the pub are, and at a certain point that difference becomes a line in the sand. The pub regulars want to hold a town meeting to vent their anger over the immigrant influx; they have no place to do it, and ask TJ if he can open the pub’s back room, which has been a locked-up and dilapidated wreck for decades. Tommy says no, the place is unsafe. But he’s lying. The real reason is that he doesn’t want to host an anti-immigrant meeting. And his old mates know it; they can read him. In their eyes, he has abandoned them to join the cause of…them.
Why is Tommy so good, and so liberal? It’s rooted in his union-activist past, and in his longtime bond with Laura (Claire Rodgerson), an idealistic family friend. But Loach also does a bit to fill in TJ’s wrecked personal background: a divorce, the son who won’t speak to him, the father who died in an accident two years ago, and the little dog named Marra who showed up on the beach just as TJ was getting ready to wade into the water and do away with himself. TJ, in theory, is no saint. Except that he kind of is.
Seven years ago, Loach, who’s now 86, was at Cannes with “I, Daniel Blake,” a drama about the crumbling British welfare system, and a man dropping through the bottom of it, that was scaldingly emotional and true. It won the Palme d’Or (Loach’s second, after “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” in 2006). There is speculation that “The Old Oak,” the story of a man trying to do right as the friends around him succumb to hate, could give Loach a third Palme. But if that were to happen, it would be for the wrong reasons.
“The Old Oak” starts off strong. It sets up an embattled community, and a conflict between TJ and his comrades, that has the potential to be wrenching. When TJ decides to open up that back room after all, so that it can host a community dinner that will bring the long-time locals and some of the recently arrived Syrian families together, it becomes clear that TJ has made a decision to reject prejudice. Loach, to his credit, stages the intolerance of the pub crowd with humanity. These downtrodden workers, screwed over by the system, have always been Loach’s people; he hasn’t lost his feeling for them. But now they have found even more downtrodden people to squash the way they were squashed, and Loach catches what’s contemptible — and tragic — in that dynamic.
But Loach and his screenwriter, Paul Laverty, don’t push the conflict far enough. The movie makes the point that the regulars at the Old Oak aren’t white-supremacist skinheads. They’re not bullies of the sort who beat up Yara’s brother, saying things like, “You fuckin’ little dirty Paki cunt!” (In the ’80s, it would have been hard to imagine how the racist slur “Paki” could sound any uglier. Hearing it applied to people who aren’t Pakistani somehow qualifies.) Yet tribal intolerance, even when it’s this desperate and dyed-in-the-wool, is still an ugly thing. It can’t just be wished away. And “The Old Oak,” having beautifully set up the conflict that TJ is facing, sort of does just that.
Something bad (and too overtly symbolic) happens to TJ’s beloved dog. And it crushes him. It also catalyzes him. I bought his change, but what I didn’t buy is how the community changes. The anger, so raw and destructive, melts away. The old spirit of the miners’ solidarity is transformed into a new cross-cultural solidarity. Except that the resolution of these conflicts is far too easy. “The Old Oak” catches you up — for a while. The performances of Turner and Mari have pain and soul. But this is the last movie that should be turning into a Kumbaya progressive fairy tale. “The Old Oak” wants to melt our hearts, but for all of Loach’s grounded toughness it’s the film that winds up going soft.