Firebrand political filmmaker Ken Loach has rarely been as even-handed as he is in It's A Free World , a soapy melodrama about the exploitation of immigrants that takes the perspective of—and is sympathetic to—one of the exploiters. Kierston Wareing plays an ambitious young single mother who quits her job at an employment agency to set up her own business securing low-paid day-workers for factories. Wareing spends her mornings barking at the confused Eastern Europeans and Middle Easterners who huddle in her courtyard looking for work, and the rest of her day hustling to recover wages from the kind of shady bosses who hire off the books. She's a sleazebag, but she's really only trying to make a better life for her troubled 11-year-old son. And as she's quick to point out, the immigrants she hires need the service she provides.
Loach's reputation for social realism threads back through 40 years of feature films; he's nearly always had an interest in the ways individuals struggle against unyielding, oft-nefarious institutions. But Wareing is atypically in-between, and Loach and his longtime screenwriting partner Paul Laverty use her position to explore their own frustration about a situation that seems increasingly impossible. The villain of their piece is abstract: It's the decades of public policies that have allowed businesses to hire undocumented workers with minimal repercussions, while the workers themselves bear the weight of low wages, no health benefits, and the ire of natives who believe the immigrants are stealing their jobs.
The problem with It's A Free World , as with a lot of Loach films of late, is that in spite of strong performances and a taut narrative, the whole endeavor plays more like a position paper than a movie. Loach and Laverty even include a scene where Wareing's father, a stalwart supporter of Labour, lays out the arguments against what she's doing, while she defends herself. Then there's the this-is-what-it-all-comes-down-to scene where Wareing calls up a couple of her workers to service her sexually, and the scene where one of Wareing's unpaid workers bluntly makes the movie's point by asking her, "Are your children more important than ours?" Still, It's A Free World 's dilemmas are undeniably thought-provoking. When Wareing is forced to tell a group of workers that they have to keep working for no pay or risk never getting paid at all, the situation is overly pointed. It's also true.