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Film Reviews: The Old Oak & Wicked Little Letters

Arts Review2024-4-12By: Marc Glassman


England Swings

The Old Oak & Wicked Little Letters reviewed

By Marc Glassman


The Old Oak

Ken Loach, director

Paul Laverty, script

Rebecca O’Brien, producer

Starring: Dave Turner (TJ Ballantyne), Ebla Mari (Yara), Claire Rodgerson (Laura), Trevor Fox (Charlie), Chris McGlade (Vic), Col Tait (Eddy). Andy Dawson (Micky)


During the devastating Brexit year of 2016, in northeast England, a group of Syrian refugees are brought in to settle in a County Durham village that has never recovered from the closing of the mines and the destruction of their union 30 years earlier. Once the bastion of hard-working coal miners and their families, who voted Labour and believed in socialism, Durham’s people have seen their economy ruined and with it, their faith in themselves and their old politics. An area which might have embraced survivors of a foreign civil war in the past, is now divided between those who still believe in humanity and progressive politics and those who have given way to fear and racist violence. 

The aging legendary British radical filmmaker Ken Loach, now 87, claims that The Old Oak, this film about Syrians coming to Durham, is likely his last. If so, it’s a lovely way to go out. Like so many of his films, its drama is totally situated around politics. The stakes are set high straight from the beginning, when the Syrians arrive in town only to be heckled by the locals, impoverished economically and—dare I say it—spiritually. One of the lads, all in the spirit of bullying “fun,” breaks the camera of a spirited young Syrian woman, Yara. His behaviour enrages TJ Ballantyne, the owner and bartender of the local pub The Old Oak. TJ is an old friend of Laura, who brought in the refugees, and both still believe in the old humanist ways in which they were raised. 

When Yara comes to visit him at the Old Oak to find out more about the lad who broke her camera, TJ invites her into the abandoned common room, situated behind the bar, where he has extraordinary black and white photos of the coal miners and the village in its better days. TJ has the cameras that took those photos and trades them in to fix Yara’s broken one. It turns out to be the perfect swap as Yara becomes the visual chronicler of her time in the village, which starts off so dreadfully but gradually turns better. The presence of Yara seems to galvanize TJ, who works with her and Laura and others to try to bring some generosity back into the village. They set up a meal program, where the Syrians and the villagers can break bread together—and most everything else—twice a week, in the old common room. 

It’s all going so well that you know it can’t last—this is a Loach film, after all. But perhaps because this may be his last film, Loach does allow us to experience something meaningful between Yara and TJ—and, no, it’s not a romance. Through the dialogue that new friends embrace, TJ gets to understand about the terrible situation in Syria, where Bashar al Assad has allowed half the country to be destroyed just so that he can remain in power. Yara even hopes for the death of her father, a prisoner, because the torment of being in one of Assad’s cells is worse than living. She, in turn, hears from TJ about what happened to Durham and the Northeast, destroyed by Thatcher’s right wing thugs—oops, police and military—in the ‘80s, ruining the pride and the lives of generations of coal miners. TJ’s own life, too, has been tough, losing his wife and son to his depression and drinking. 

Thankfully, Loach allows this tale of mutual sorrows to end with a reconciliation, with much of the village embracing their new arrivals, the Syrians, when a personal bereavement occurs. There is a lot of anger in The Old Oak, with the racism of some of the Durham old-time pub drinkers being appalling to watch. But it’s part of the reality of the situation and Loach has always been a realist. Ultimately, The Old Oak is about hope, that the best parts of British culture and politics will rise again to defeat the forces of negativism in their society. 

Kudos for this remarkable film should go to not just the director but to his long-running team of scriptwriter Paul Laverty and producer Rebecca O’Brien. They’ve been with him since the ‘90s and embody his sensibility in their work. Congrats should also definitely go to a newer Loach veteran, Robbie Ryan, an ace cinematographer whose shots throughout feel like a neo-realist film by Rossellini or de Sica—never flashy, always truthful. 


The Old Oak is a remarkable film. One can only hope that this isn’t the last one for the brilliant Ken Loach. 


Wicked Little Letters

Thea Sharrock, director

Jonny Sweet, script

Starring: Olivia Colman (Edith Swan), Jessie Buckley (Rose Gooding), Anjana Vasan (PC Gladys Moss), Timothy Spall (Edward Swan), Joanna Scanlan (Ann), Gemma Jones (Victoria Swan), Malachy Kirby (Bill), Eileen Atkins (Mabel), Lolly Adefope (Kate)

The British are renowned for broad comedies, where the performances are way over the top and the situations are, by definition, absolutely absurd. We all know that such plays and films are—nod, nod, wink, wink—being played for laughs. Beloved by many, it’s a style of humour that’s worked well in England—and Canada—for, well, forever. The hit play “One Man, Two Guvnors,” may be the best recent example of a great Brit broad comedy.

Now we have Wicked Little Letters, which is being touted for its humour and its pairing of two of the more loveable current British stars, Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley. Though they are not physically that similar, there is something about the two actors that makes their pairing irresistible. In the recent adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, the two played the lead character, Leda, at different ages—and it was not just accepted, it was praised. Now, they are playing enemies—and next door neighbours.

Wicked Little Letters may be performed like a broad comedy but the story it’s based upon is surprisingly true. Shortly after World War One, the town of Littlehampton, Sussex was shocked when a church-going woman, Edith Swan, started to receive obscene letters. The language was so abusive and rather strange in its choice of terminology that it provoked widespread interest, particularly when it was picked by the high circulation newspaper, The Daily Mail. Edith Swan accused her next door neighbour Rose Gooding, a recent Irish émigré, with the crime and she was sentenced to three months in prison. 

Worse was to take place. Rose and Edith, who were initially friends, had fallen out over the use of their communal garden. After Rose had spent time in jail—falsely in her opinion—she was angrier than ever, which in turn, made Edith furious. A new round of “wicked” letters was sent off—and Rose went to jail again, this time for three years. Happily, one of the first female police officers Gladys Moss, through the use of postage stamps laced with invisible ink—don’t you just love England!—was able to prove Rose’s innocence. 

It’s a crazy story but there’s no doubt that it created a scandal so far reaching that it was talked about in Parliament. Now, over a hundred years’ later, it’s been made into a film with Buckley and Colman playing their parts in a style meant to entertain folks at the back of the theatre or anywhere in a cinema. Neither is shouting her part, but each is going for a broad effect in their performance. They’re still awfully good as is the rest of the cast, which includes such well known actors as Timothy Spall playing Colman’s father and Gemma Jones as her mother.

Wicked Little Letters is proving to be a hit in Canada, with over 60 screens showing it this week. People are finding the film vastly amusing. I don’t want to sound churlish, but the story could have played out as a wicked satire on the Church, the class system, and anti-Irish sentiments, which were certainly a part of England 100 years ago. It’s all there but remains pretty much buried in the tone of vaudevillian comedy that permeates the film. At any rate, Wicked Little Letters is certainly giving laughter to a growing audience and kudos for that.



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