February 3, 2008

It’s a Free World review
It’s a free world

Matt: Four Stars

Length: 96min

Précis: Dramatic social realism carrying Ken Loach’s familiar compassionate message.

Review by Matt:

I should confess before you read this that I love Ken Loach and I want to give him a big hug. He must be about the most compassionate and people-sensitive film maker around. If nothing else, his 40 years of film making has documented his strong social conscience and concern for his fellow humans, especially working class communities. Films such as The Navigators, My Name is Joe, Sweet Sixteen and Riff Raff told sympathetic stories of society’s downtrodden and challenged audiences to look at them from a different perspective. Loach’s latest film is It’s a Free World and it tells a rousing and realistic story about immigrant and illegal workers in Britain.

It’s a Free World opens with verite-style footage of everyday people in Poland, eagerly describing their qualifications to Ange (Kierston Wareing), a recruitment agent for a London employment agency. Despite the hardships they’ll face – loss of dignity, menial jobs, unrecognised qualifications – the applicants bravely persist, like all people who struggle for a better life. We feel sorry for them. Soon after, when Ange unjustly loses her own job, we also feel sorry for. She struggles to find new employment, to support her child, and – now in her 30’s – to feel like she has made something of herself.

But Ange is a gutsy Londoner, and she beats her troubles by founding her own recruitment agency with the assistance of her savvy room-mate (Juliet Ellis). Things start to look up. But then things start to look murky. How much of a victim is our protagonist really? The desperate immigrants have suddenly been redefined as Ange’s capital and her opportunism has morphed into exploitation. Or is it exploitation? Ange believes she is redeeming herself by running a successful business, and ‘helping people’ at the same time. There’s plenty of people around to reinforce this belief.

Like many Ken Loach films, It’s a Free World is fundamentally a study of people and the corrosive effect of a poisonous capitalist society. This film is much less about capitalism’s destruction of rights and dignity than some of Loach’s other films – although this message is clear in the plight of the poor immigrants. It is more focused on the way capitalism – as Marx said – distorts all ‘human and natural qualities’. Greed and money has Ange selling away her fellow humans and excitedly counting her earnings. It’s the world described by Marx where our humanity drowns in the ‘icy waters of egoistic calculation’. Marx warned us, and Loach is showing us.

The style is also like most of Loach’s other films. It’s a Free World eschews typical studio-style for the gritty neo‑realist method made popular in 1950s Italian films. The characters are unknown or non-professional actors (Loach is also fond of hiring people who in real life are connected with the world on which his film is focused). The scripts are also loose and largely improvised to elicit genuine performances. It works so well. The acting is real and un-theatrical – almost like we’re watching normal folks out on the street. As Ange, Kierston Wareing is in almost every scene, and she’s a perfect conflicted mix of callousness and sincere empathy. It’s a reminder that you don’t need to hire stars if you’re looking for great acting. The style also amplifies the tragedy of the story and illuminates Loach’s message.

The emotional ending cements this message. Most of all, It’s a Free World warns us to look around, to remember our fellow humans, and to study how we deal with the endless, venomous lure of capitalism. Ange is convinced, or has convinced herself, that what she is doing is not only defensible, but helpful. ‘If I was them I would want to meet someone like me’, she maintains when warned she is crossing the line. By the end we want to cry out at her. But what she does is easy for any of us to do – and Ange isn’t the only one in the film who lets greed supplant her humanity in weak moments. After all, it’s a free world. Do we also ever exploit our fellow humans, turn a blind eye, or explain something away believing what is convenient? We can’t really cry out to Ange unless we’re guilt free ourselves. It’s a Free World leaves us with an uncomfortable sense of chagrin, not just because of the vivid depiction of the desperate people around us, but also because we identify with someone who exploits these people yet remains oblivious and defiant. Kudos to Ken Loach for making yet another dramatically engaging film that also reminds us to examine and rejuvenate our humanity.


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