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‘It’s a Free World’

From abused to abuser

by Kaori Shoji

In the world of U.K. filmmaker Ken Loach (“Raining Stones,” “Sweet Sixteen,” “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”) the working class have dignity; they speak and act with principle, even when these happen to be misguided. They may be bogged down by poverty, lack of schooling, recessions and unemployment, and, though the system perpetually works against them, they manage to retain some honor, personal pride and real love for their nearest and dearest.

So Angie (Kierston Wareing), Loach’s latest heroine — is an alien presence: She’s brash and selfish, a go-getter determined to succeed at any cost.

“As long as you’re in the clear, no one else matters, is that it?” Angie’s patient father, Geoff (Colin Coughlin), asks her, and, momentarily stunned, she evades replying before brushing him aside.

Geoff’s gaze on Angie is protective, but also sad. He knows his daughter is swerving off in the wrong direction, but also knows he’s more or less powerless to stop her. But he certainly won’t give up on her. And this reflects Loach’s own attitude toward Angie and her story.

It's a Free World
Rating
Director Ken Loach
Run Time 96 minutes
Language English

Initially, you want to root for Angie, just as you want to root for most of Loach’s characters. A 33-year-old single mum, Angie shares a flat with her friend Rose (Juliet Ellis) while working 12-hour days in a London employment agency, and she manages to see her 11-year-old son Jamie (Joe Siffleet), who lives with her parents, several times a month.

When she rejects the advances of a sleazoid colleague, word reaches her boss, and it’s she — not the guy — who gets sacked. Where other Loach characters would take to drinking or sink into despair, Angie wastes no time on self-pity. Within a week she convinces Rose to join her in a new venture, buys a motorcycle and sets up a Web site for her own employment agency. Problem is, the workers she chooses to deal with are illegal aliens from Eastern Europe desperate for a job in Britain, and she has no qualms about exploiting them.

She herds them like cattle into tiny vans, shuttles them off to double shifts in factories, charges them hefty rent money for grossly inadequate housing, and the final coup de gra^ce: she skims off their salaries. And like her sleazy male boss, Angie even combines sex with work by briefly dating the young, sweet Karol (Leslaw Zurek) from Poland, before dumping him when he becomes an encumbrance.

Angie’s logic is that everyone is in on some form of exploitation, and, for once in her life, she’s on the right side of the fence. She’s fierce and feisty, using everything from her feminine charm (Angie sure knows the effect of unzipping her leather jacket to reveal the tight tank-top underneath) to blustering, lying, breaking contract clauses and trampling on human rights — to get what she wants, which is a whole lot of money. The upshot is that she loses the love and respect of people who count in her life, but — and this is what makes Angie who she is — she doesn’t really give a hoot.

“When people don’t like you, it means that they’re jealous,” she tells her son with utter conviction. When Jamie is reprimanded for breaking a classmate’s jaw, she tells him privately that he has nothing to apologize for, because he’s “better and stronger” than the other boy.

Wareing’s performance as Angie is mesmerizing; she manages to convey the defeat and frustration she had dragged around for years, as well as the vicious and victorious woman she’s on the verge of becoming.

“One more haul and that’s it,” she keeps promising Rose as she sends another batch of workers to god-knows-what awful jobs.

Loach’s other characters, in the darkest of times, had always made space in themselves to accommodate their moral scruples, but as Angie tells Geoff, she has no time or truck for any of that. In Angie’s view, as well as that of modern society, extreme hard work (whatever the means or consequences) is its own justification, amply deserving of respect and success. She’s locked into that particular work ethic (an oxymoron, if ever there was one), and there’s no convincing her out of it, mainly because she’s sure that society will back her up. Of all the Loach characters, Angie seems the saddest and most deprived, driven by a nagging thirst that nothing, not even money, could ever fully quench.