Ken Loach UK/Germany/Italy/Spain/Poland,/ 2007, 96 minutes
Ken Loach is back in familiar groove in It's A Free World. This is a small-scale but often affecting and very well observed film in the vein of The Navigators, Riff-Raff and Raining Stones. It may not be vintage Loach (there are moments of improbability and occasional lurches toward melodrama) but the film has all the qualities associated with the director - depth of characterisation, warmth and a biting political message. Regular fans will know what to expect and should not be disappointed. Meanwhile, the film may also attract a broader audience.
It is less didcactic than some of the director's earlier work and is galvanised by an immensely likeable and lively performance from newcomer Kierston Wareing
Screening on UK television in a prime time slot in the early autumn, It's A Free World will be released theatrically in most other territories and should be as warmly received as his work generally is - Loach has an immensely loyal following across Europe.
The settings here may be British, but story he tells here will have a resonance in any western country. At its premiere on the Lido, Venice audiences were enthusiastic and there is no sign that distributors outside Britain are worried that it will show so soon on the UK in the small screen.
It's A Free World deals with subject matter that has been addressed in many other recent documentaries and dramas - namely the shifting job market in a post-industrial world and the exploitation of illegal immigrants by employers who use them as cheap labour.
What makes the film fresh and original, though, is that Loach doesn't simply caricature the evil bosses and unscrupulous gangmasters. Instead, by making a young, attractive single mother the central character, he introduces complexity and ambiguity to the storytelling.
Angie (Kierston Wareing) is a 33-year-old Londoner who has just lost her job in a recruitment agency (where she was sexually harassed.) She has debts and is sick of being bounced from 'one shitty job to another.' In a bid for independence, she sets up her own recruitment agency with her friend, Rose.
At first, Angie is conscientious. She works very long hours and treats the immigrant workers with respect. Gradually, though, she begins to lose her moral compass. She starts cutting corners, using workers who don't have proper papers and charging them rent money.
'A few months and then we will be legal,' she tells her business partner. Her idea is that once the agency is established, she will do everything above board and will be able to spend more time with her young son.
Back in the late 1960s, Loach made one of his most famous films, Cathy Come Home, in which the homeless single mother was the victim. It is a measure of changing times that Angie ends up as the victimiser.
'I thought those days were done,' her father sighs as he sees the casual workers queuing up at dawn to be taken on by Angie for dirty, dead-end jobs. Angie is treated badly by employers and contractors and therefore begins to treat her own workers in equally brutal fashion.
Gradually, she turns into a ruthless entrepreneur. The more money she makes, the more money she needs. She can always find convenient arguments to justify her behaviour. What makes the film unsettling is that Angie (sparkily played by Wareing) is such a resilient and likeable figure.
Certain elements grate - the romantic sub-plot about Angie's affair with a young Pole doesn't go anywhere and the scenes in which balaclava-wearing men break into her flat and threaten her son seem to belong in another movie.
Nonetheless, the film balances the political and the personal in a skillful and subtle way. On the one hand, this is a drama about globalisation, racism and the exploitation of foreign workers. On the other, it is a closely focused story about a young woman in difficult straits, trying to survive. It works equally well on both levels.
Loach is again working with his usual collaborators. Although clearly shot on a modest budget, the film boasts the craftsmanship that you expect in his work. It's A Free World may be minor Loach, but it demonstrates his continuing ability to make films that are affecting, angry and topical.
A Pathe release (in U.K.) of a BIM Distribuzione/EMC Produktion Tornasol Films, SPI Intl. presentation, in association with Channel 4, Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Polish Film Institute, Diaphana Distribution, Pathe Distribution, Cineart, Film Coopi, of a Sixteen Films production Exec Producer: Ulrich Fellsberg
Producer: Rebecca O'Brien
Screenplay: Paul Laverty
Ph: Nigel Willoughby
Ed: Jonathan Morris
Prod Des: Fergus Clegg
Int Sales: Pathe International
Cast: Kierston Wareing, Juliet Ellis, Leslaw Zurek