From Up the Junction (1965) to Ae Fond Kiss (2004), the working class experience has been a constant theme in the televised and theatrical films of Ken Loach, an Oxford-educated son of an electrician. After The Wind That Shakes That Barley (2006) - his Palme d'Or-winning period piece about two brothers who join the Irish Republican Army in the 1920s - Loach and long-time writing collaborator Paul Laverty decided to return to contemporary matters, specifically, the growing "working class" of illegal immigrants in Britain.
It's a Free World ... follows the ambition of Angie (Kierston Wareing), an uneducated but smart and motivated single mom who sets up her own recruitment agency for immigrant workers with her flat-mate Rose (Juliet Ellis), ignoring the risks of working without a licence until it catches up with her in potentially dangerous ways.
Like much of Loach's previous work, the film has a documentary feel. And its exploration of the perspective of the exploiter, as opposed to that of the victim, is a fresh twist that ensures it never feels too didactic.
The film won the screenwriting prize at the Venice Film Festival and received a warm response when it packed the Winter Garden Theatre during the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Not surprisingly, Toronto audience members were eager to share their opinions on the subject, which certainly touches Canadians. But it is perhaps a more confronting concern in Western Europe.
The tragic drowning deaths of immigrant cockle pickers at Morecambe Bay in 2004 - a major media story in Europe and the subject of a re-enactment documentary by Nick Broomfield - was just one of the stories that caught the attention of Loach and Laverty as they discussed ideas for their next film.
"People travelling to find work has been going on since time immemorial, but has increased substantially in the past few years, especially with the collapse of the Stalinist economies in the east," Loach said in an interview after the film's Toronto screening. "Business in Western Europe has seen this is a great opportunity to get cheap labour. It's a perfect way of disciplining the working class in their own countries. They can say, 'You don't want to work for this low wage, well here's somebody who will work for half of it.' "
"You can say this is not a good thing for people in our country, who want to secure work with proper wages," he said. "Then you see people with good qualifications are leaving their countries to work menial jobs in the west. Those countries are losing their most ambitious workers. It is bad for everybody except those wanting to make a quick buck."
Loach makes a terrific casting choice with Wareing, who was about to give up on acting and become a legal secretary when she got the role. He gave the actors only a few pages of the script every day and shot the film in sequence, which helped create a realistic emotional progression.
He also hired many non-actors, people with experience as immigrant workers, to play characters much like themselves. "We wanted people in a situation similar to what they're doing every day to make the film as believable as possible," he explained. "Because they are who they are, they tend to do things that feel very authentic. So you construct things like you're doing a documentary." (The non-actors were paid scale rates for their efforts.)
Although Angie, the film's central character, is after more than just a quick buck, she's certainly not above cutting corners and lying in order to keep her new recruitment business moving forward. She's also extremely likeable, talented and charming, and a sympathetic character at times.
"We've tried to tell stories and show characters and conflicts and narratives that reflect something about the way the world is, but it shouldn't be propaganda," Loach said. "Angie's experience of the way the world is, and the way she needs to act, is different from her father. He grew up when unions were stronger and you worked collectively. Angie's grown up in a time when you have to compete, not collaborate."
In It's A Free World ... Loach added, he is looking beneath the skin of society to show its complexity. "If you criticize Angie, you have to criticize the whole damn lot," he said. "Angie underpaying workers here is no different than big corporations investing in foreign countries because workers are cheap. If you hold up your hands in horror at Angie, then you should do so to big business as well."
It's a Free World ... is now playing in Toronto and opens in Vancouver next Friday.
Born Nuneaton, England, 1936
Up the Junction (1965)
Cathy Come Home (1966)
Poor Cow (1967)
Family Life (1971)
Hidden Agenda (1990), Cannes Special Jury Prize
Raining Stones (1993), Cannes Special Jury Prize
Carla's Song (1996)
The Flickering Flame (1997)
My Name Is Joe (1998)
Bread and Roses (2000)
Ae Fond Kiss... (2004)
The Wind That Shakes
the Barley (2006),
Palme d'Or, Cannes
It's a Free World... (2007), Screenplay Osella at 64th
Venice Film Festival