Is a person in their late twenties or early thirties obligated to put social justice above their own career ambitions? Do they have the right to do whatever is necessary to get ahead, and ignore the social costs? If they don't, and they are pushed aside in favor of someone else who will, are they noble or are they a sucker? These are only a few of the questions that are raised in It's a Free World, the excellent new drama from Ken Loach. The subject of the film is illegal immigration, but perceiving the near-impossibility of taking on that subject from the front, Loach has approached it from a fresh and clever angle, that of a 33 year-old London woman who operates a start-up employment agency matching up mostly Eastern European immigrants with employers in the U.K. Intensely proud of her meager independence, Angie (a breakthrough performance by newcomer Kierston Wareing) is put to the test when she discovers that for her small business to survive, she must start doing what everyone in her field does: hire illegals.
Angie has a business partner named Rose (Juliet Ellis) as well as an unsympathetic father and a troubled young son, none of whom are terribly concerned with ensuring her financial security or helping her realize her ambition to actually start a business that will go somewhere. They each have their own needs. Rose isn't presented to us as a paragon of virtue, as you might expect, but rather someone who is simply content to scrape out a living and be what she perceives as a good citizen, and call it a day. Angie, on the other hand, seems constantly propelled by some sort of trauma in her past -- either poverty or a bad living situation to which she refuses to return -- and she throws her entire mental and physical being into doing whatever is necessary to get her little employment agency off the ground. That's her state of mind when an older, seasoned businessman takes her into an office one day and lays it on the line: start bringing us illegal workers or we'll give our business to someone who will.
Despite limiting us to only a few main characters, Loach is able to convincingly paint a whole world that exists comfortably outside the boundaries of the law -- the legal system has no dispute with them. Managers at firms where illegal labor is essential can skirt the law with impunity, because they know that they are far from alone in their transgressions. In one of the film's best scenes, we see a business manager handing Angie something he keeps in his office almost for comedic value: a letter sent by the government to a business owner known to be employing hundreds of illegals. The letter politely asks him to please stop doing that. That's about as tough as the government is willing to get, and Angie is sufficiently ready to believe that line, but as she begins to overlook workers' phoney papers and hustle through the ones with no papers at all, she begins to find that existing outside the reach of the law is a double-edged sword, and it means that accountability and fairness between business partners is more or less a quaint idea.
What begins in an almost quasi-documentary format, showing us the ins and outs of this down and dirty way of life, eventually escalates into a tense, effective thriller. Angie is left holding the bag one day when an employer simply refuses to pay the illegal laborers that she has brought to him and skips town without telling anyone. The immigrants have done the work they were hired for, but Angie now has no money to pass on to them, and instead of skipping town like the big bosses, she decides to stand in front of her workers and tell them the truth. For her trouble, she becomes the target of a gang of desperate, connected people who expect her to make up the shortfall by any means necessary, and have ways of coercing her into paying. It's a Free World is a film that works on every level -- the performances are compelling, the drama feels grounded and real, and we brush up against an issue so large and overwhelming that you can easily see why no one thinks it's their problem to solve.