Ken Loach at the Old Oak premiere, September 2023. Photo: Dave Bennett/WireImage
In a superb new comedy-drama In The Affair, one of the biggest laughs comes when Johnny Flynn's TV presenter Seamus, talking about his actress co-star, says, “She's not a snob! She's good friends with Ken Loach!”
Not only is the line typical of the wit of David Ireland's script, but it immediately captures the essence of the 87-year-old filmmaker as he is generally perceived: on the side of righteousness, at least in his own eyes, but evil. , a humorless and belligerent man who is difficult to befriend without giving him a long lecture on the atrocities of the Conservative government, Tony Blair, the Israeli occupation of Palestine or any of the other bogeymen Loach has amassed during his life. career.
His latest film, The Old Oak, is almost parodic Loachian. Written by his regular collaborator Paul Laverty, it revolves around a community pub in a depressed former mining town in County Durham: it is run by a widowed landlord with a heart of gold, unlike most of his bigoted and xenophobic regulars, who are horrified when the town is home to a group of Syrians refugees. A friendship develops between the homeowner and one of the refugees, a woman named Jari, which predictably leads to tense relations with the locals and constant expressions of outrage at the callous policies of the evil Tories that have led to this situation.
Many Loach trademarks are present and correct. We have non-professional actors, an attention to contemporary social issues, a universal northern grit peppered with what might seem forced attempts at humor if you could hear it through the accents, and a focus on interpersonal, ordinary male relationships with one big man. , albeit a caricatured female character added for variation.
The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year to reviews that were more respectful than laudatory. Although it was nominated for the Palme d'Or, it did not win, unlike his earlier films The Wind That Shakes the Barley and I, Daniel Blake.
The director suggested—perhaps fortunately—that this might be his last film. “It would actually be difficult to make a feature film again,” he said. “Your opportunities are declining. Your short-term memory is fading and my vision is terrible right now, so it's quite difficult. Those with longer memories may remember that Loach also threatened (or promised) to retire in 2014 when he premiered his film Jimmy's Hall: The Catholic Church is Evil! – at Cannes, and then again in 2019 when he premiered his campaign drama Sorry We Missed You – the gig economy is evil! – at the festival.
However, while Loach might be enjoying a peaceful retirement in his home town of Bath, some anger or social inequality inspires him again, like an aged gunslinger strapping on his Smith & Wesson for the final battle to saddle up and stand behind the camera for a good fight next time.
Throughout Ken Loach's nearly 60-year career, audiences have struggled to find a purely enjoyable film. When he's in a more relaxed and expansive mood, looking at pictures is less punitive; his 2009 film Finding Eric, about the relationship between a depressed postman and his imaginary conversations with legendary footballer Eric Cantona, is wildly funny without the endless plot of gun-wielding gangsters. And 2012's An Angel's Share, a low-key take on a heist comedy, features a delightfully aristocratic performance from Roger Allam as a wealthy whiskey collector; if only Laverty's script had given him some truly witty lines, although Allam is such a pro that he can turn even didactic base metal into comic gold.
Ken Loach, Kes Photo credit: Alami
However, against this background, Loach's filmography is one of the most depressing of any major director. In his best years, especially early in his career, there is real anger and acrimony behind the photographs; Frequently (and correctly) cited as his best film, Kes combines a touching relationship between a teenage boy and a kestrel with a righteous condemnation of the falling standards of the educational system of the late sixties.
However, especially of late, it seems that Laverty and Loach find an issue to condemn and then build a didactic two-dimensional script around it with characters who are often prone to monologue agitprop rather than exchange dialogue. Loach's films are, in their own way, as comfortingly predictable as the Marvel superhero films he (naturally) condemned; there are villains as diabolical as Thanos or Killmonger, but they are the forces of business, conservatism, or any other part of British society that the aged troublemaker objects to. They are caricatured if they appear at all; the implication is that they are barely human and not worthy of attention.
It doesn't help that Loach has found it so easy to make fun of himself. His recent appearance, rather incongruously, on Saturday Live – along with, of all people, self-proclaimed right-wing comedian Geoff Norcott – saw Loach climb onto his soapbox in his usual, time-tested manner. However, even as he denounced his old enemies, those with longer memories will remember that last December he gave an interview to the socialist website Equal Times in which he angrily declared that ” The BBC played a major role in [the destruction of Jeremy Corbyn's Labor Party] – an absolutely shameless role – and now this entire political project, which almost became a government three years ago, has been erased from public discourse.”
Ken Loach directs Eve Birthistle in The Favorite Kiss
Clearly, demands for publicity meant he was prepared to once again sit down at the negotiating table with the “unscrupulous” TV presenter. For good measure, in the same interview he also criticized the “joint criminal” in the liberal and left-wing media, the Guardian, for their craven silence in the face of Sir Keir Starmer's attempts to expel anti-Semitism from the Labor Party, expelling (Loach estimates) “at least 200 000 people, as far as we know.”
It is therefore very unfortunate that Loach himself is now considered by many to be either an anti-Semite or, in the most generous assessment, at least a sympathizer of those who were expelled from the Labor Party for this particular bigotry. He is one of their number, ousted in 2021 and denounced it on Twitter, writing: “The witch hunt is well and truly on… Starmer and his cabal will never lead the party of the people. There are many of us, there are few of them. Solidarity”.
Labour considers him so politically toxic that the Corbynista mayor of north Tyne, Jamie Driscoll, was banned from standing for re-election after appearing on stage with Loach in March this year; it was felt that the director's views on anti-Semitism, Israel and the Holocaust were so outrageous that not publicly condemning them was tantamount to tacit agreement with them.
Ken Loach with Eric Cantona at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Photo: AP
It may come as a surprise to those who see Loach as a force for good in society that he has gone on record to say that the rise of anti-Semitism in Britain was an understandable by-product of Israel's actions. Or that he said that “all history is up for debate” when asked whether he would condemn the Holocaust (though he later clarified that “the Holocaust is as real a historical event as World War II itself and should not be disputed.” .”). Or indeed, he remains an ardent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, for whom he made a promotional film in 2016, after which he praised the “optimism and hope” of his supporters.
Some might see all of this as an example of Loach's consistently left-wing politics – he was, after all, the man whose 1987 production of Jim Allen's A Death at the Royal Court was rejected because of claims of collaboration between the Zionist movement and the Nazis. Others might ask why, in an era when right-wing figures such as Lawrence Fox are winding down their careers overnight, someone on the other side of the political divide has never been seriously challenged on views that most would find difficult, if not offensive. .
At least Loach, the most dedicated of the left, never took a Hollywood dollar; there is not a single superhero picture or James Bond film that would desecrate his filmography. Alas, there is one impressive blemish on the otherwise impeccable work. In 1990, during the heyday of the Conservative government he so despised, times were tough, so the director hired none other than McDonalds to do a commercial for them.
The short video tells the story of a man who, frustrated while shopping with his wife, perks up when he is allowed to eat a hamburger. And this wasn't Loach's only commercialization venture, as he also helmed the advertising for Caramac chocolate, a Nestlé product. He subsequently admitted that “this lies very much on my conscience”; but his son Jim said it was either that or he would have to move. If only we all had dilemmas like this.
So Loach may or may not be planning to part ways with his staff and give up filmmaking. His inimitable issue-focused cinema will be missed by many and his abrasive, often dour personality is considered an important part of the cultural landscape. However, for those less partisan who regard Loach's personal politics and everyday films as less important than his admirers, it will be difficult not to feel that this particular old oak, gnarled and wrinkled as it undoubtedly is, will not suffer too much from its an inevitable, perhaps belated, fall.