Unsettling scenes of ugly racism as Syrian migrants are moved into a once proud working-class community open Ken Loach’s latest film.

The year is 2016, a time when the Middle East refugee crisis was high on the political agenda and MP Jo Cox was murdered by a right-wing extremist in her constituency.

Although Brexit is not directly mentioned in the film, it was a time when Nigel Farage conflated the two issues by showing long lines of migrants in his infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster.

The Old Oak was filmed across east Durham and could be one of many former pit villages in the coalfield area.

The Northern Echo: The Old Oak is the last pub in a once thriving former colliery communityThe Old Oak is the last pub in a once thriving former colliery community (Image: Studio Canal)

Familiar concerns and common fears about the impact of newcomers, some of which resonate with welcoming people, are voiced through the handful of regulars at The Old Oak, once The Victoria in Murton, the last remaining public space in the village.

Angriest and most ignorant is Vic, an obnoxious gob of a character perfectly captured by Redcar comedian Chris McGlade, who berates landlord TJ Ballantyne for showing kindness to desperate people fleeing their war-torn homeland.

The disused backroom of the pub is long forgotten but black and white photographs celebrate the area’s industrial past when coal was king, how the community stuck together during the Miners’ Strike and when everyone went to the Big Meeting in Durham each July.

The pub boss, played by retired Blaydon firefighter Dave Turner, is a former miner, who is struggling to keep his head above water.

In a heartrending monologue he tells how he contemplated suicide by drowning himself in the North Sea, near the scene of the pit disaster that killed his dad, saved only by the appearance of dog named ‘Marra’.

The film is so saturated in socialist idealism and overt in its messaging, it could be seen as mawkish if not for the skilful handling of preeminent political auteur Ken Loach and Paul Laverty’s engaging and compelling story.

Through the friendship TJ develops with Yara, a young Syrian woman with a passion for photography, he also rediscovers his sense of pride and community.

The Northern Echo: Ebla Mari and Dave Turner in Durham Cathedral Ebla Mari and Dave Turner in Durham Cathedral (Image: THE OLD OAK)

Newcomer Ebla Mari, who was teaching theatre in Golan Heights before winning the lead role, delivers a strong performance, the scene where she is thrown out of a house after helping a hungry schoolgirl is particularly harrowing.

So too is the vile racist attack on her brother who is badly beaten by a gang, which is filmed and shared on social media only to be met with little sympathy by the locals of The Old Oak.

There is a breakthrough, however when Yara and Laura, a community organiser played by Sunderland’s Claire Rodgerson, convince TJ to allow them to use the back room for communal lunches and events.

“When We Eat Together, We Stick Together.”

It harks back to the unity and ‘solidarity not charity’ of the soup kitchens so vital during the 1984/85 strike struggle.

While not everyone is miraculously converted, there is a heart-warming message of hope and humanity that shines through.

The Northern Echo: A scene from the new film A scene from the new film (Image: StudioCanal)

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A word of warning though.

While aspects are undoubtedly saccharine, The Old Oak is not for the faint-hearted: it pulls no punches and some scenes make for uncomfortable viewing.

There is no apology for that, nor should there be.   

This is likely to be Ken Loach’s last film and is something of a love letter to the region’s industrial heritage and caring compassionate working-class culture ingrained in spirit of Durham Miners’ Gala.

It is an important piece of work, holding up a mirror to reflect parts of modern North East society and our very recent past with the issues still all too relevant today.

It is a film everyone should see, not just dyed-in-the-wool ‘woke’ socialists, liberal lefties or rabid racists.

Amid the ongoing debates that polarise public opinion involving small boats and Rwanda, Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman should see it.

Keir Starmer should see it.

Everyone should see it.     

The Northern Echo: Film poster for new Ken Loach film Film poster for new Ken Loach film (Image: Contributor)

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The Old Oak will be released by StudioCanal at cinemas in the UK and Ireland on September 29.

Watch the trailer for The Old Oak here