Long-recognised, from writing Cathy Come Home (1966) onwards, as one of the most uncompromising directors around when it comes to educating audiences about social injustices, Ken Loach has never succumbed to the siren call of Hollywood, and it’s virtually impossible to imagine his particular brand of British socialist realism translating well to that context.
Here, he turns his withering gaze on the social realities of the UK’s immigrant labour market, based on nationwide research by writer Paul Laverty. Our ambiguous heroine Angie (Kierston Wareing), a working class, down-on-her-luck, single mother is fired from a recruitment agency after she reacts badly to her boss’s leering advances in public. Unbowed, she teams up with her flatmate and friend Rose (Juliet Ellis), and the pair combine their previous working experience to create a small but profitable working agency for illegal immigrants. Ignoring the warnings of established ‘people traders’ to stay away from this risky business, her growing success hardens her not only to the grim realities facing the workers that she’s exploiting, but also begins to further distance her from her already troubled young son Jamie (Joe Siffleet) – the social services have already warned her that he may be taken into care. How far can she go in her efforts to ‘make something’ of herself? And is she actually hurting the people whom she believes to be ‘giving a chance’ to?
While there is a sense that his character has been inserted as a near-angelic counterpoint to media-fed perceptions of immigrants, Leslaw Zurek gives a good performance as young Polish worker Karol, with whom Angie becomes intimate before circumstances dictate that the pair cannot be together, as the situation spirals out of control when her workers do not receive their pay.
As much an antidote to the anti-immigrant screaming-headline excesses of the UK tabloids as it is a reasonably satisfying social drama, It’s A Free World… succeeds largely thanks to an excellent central performance by relative newcomer Wareing (it’s her first major film role), and a screenplay that by and large convinces the viewer that this is more a documentary than feature film. Loach does not shy away from posing difficult questions of his audience – despite her obvious good intentions, Angie’s actions become increasingly exploitative, even ruthless, as the film progresses, leaving the viewer unsure as to where sympathies should lie. Yet, wisely, Loach does not sit in judgement upon any of his characters’ viewpoints, instead allowing viewers to make up their own minds. Would that sections of the British press might do the same…
96 mins. Cinélibre-Cinéart