Strong, pacily told tale unfolds from the p.o.v. of a would-be exploiter rather than a victim.

The hot-button topic of exploited immigrant labor forms the backdrop of “It’s a Free World …. ,” the latest collaboration between helmer Ken Loach and scribe Paul Laverty (following “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”). Strong, pacily told London-set tale unfolds from the p.o.v. of a would-be exploiter rather than a victim, illuminating a chain of connections most people would rather ignore. Human drama remains front and center, with discussion of issues more naturally incorporated than in some of the pair’s past work. Realistically lensed, convincingly cast pic contains several star-making turns and should work internationally as a quality arthouse item.

Feisty East Ender Angie (Kierston Wareing) grew up in Thatcherite Britain and is no stranger to looking out for No. 1. Recently dismissed from a fly-by-night employment agency specializing in not-always-legal Eastern European workers, Angie impetuously decides to open an agency of her own. She confidently makes the rounds at local factories and pubs to drum up clients and workers, while her more cautious flatmate, Rose (Juliet Ellis), creates a website and a lofty-sounding mission statement.

A thirtyish bottle-blonde with a killer smile, Angie’s not afraid to use sex appeal to get her way. Factory manager Derek (Frank Gilhooley) warns her she’s getting in over her head, but she’d rather listen to Tony (David Doyle), another client, who points to someone in the same racket who got off with a mere warning. Tony also tells her about a man in the countryside who can supply workers with fake passports.

Meanwhile, family problems intrude on Angie’s time: Her 11-year-old son, Jamie (Joe Siffleet), whom she’s parked with her parents, severely beats a school classmate. And her beloved father, Geoff (Colin Coughlin), a product of a different political and economic era and a proud union man, finds her involvement with “occasionals” disgraceful.

In between zipping to and fro on her motorbike, Angie shares a few tender moments in the sack with handsome young Polish immigrant worker Karol (Leslaw Zurek). He lives in a rundown caravan park, a less-than-desirable accommodation that ends up catalyzing a climactic plot twist.

Later, when Angie and Rose decide a good bout of sex will alleviate their stress, they call up some of their best-looking recruits. Scene at first draws laughs, but these fade as it’s clear the women think no more about sexually exploiting their staff than did Angie’s employers in the pic’s opening scenes.

Attractive and likeable, Angie’s easy for auds to identify with at the beginning, making them complicit with her actions. But as her logic becomes more and more horrifying, viewers are forced to question their own values. Lured by easy money, Angie becomes increasingly opportunistic, thinking of additional ways to fleece the desperate immigrants:”We’re giving people a chance,” she rationalizes.

The script doesn’t pass moral judgment on Angie, but rather on the cold-blooded hypocrisy of the system in which she operates. Only minor quibble is that Rose seems underdeveloped, and is too often used as a mouthpiece for Angie’s missing conscience.

Long known for obtaining terrific perfs from newcomers, Loach introduces some exciting new talent. As driven, energetic Angie, Wareing is dynamite in her first film role. Appearing in nearly every scene, she burns up the screen. Zurek, who registers a strong, sympathetic presence as Karol, proves another find. Rest of the cast is fine, with Raymond Mearns as Angie’s pub owner pal providing some much-needed humor.

Nigel Willoughby’s textured, blue-toned lensing makes the most of natural light, while contributions from Loach regulars — editor Jonathan Morris and production designer Fergus Clegg — support the docu-like intensity.

Sound seemed a little muddy on print caught in Venice. Occasionally impenetrable accents of foreign workers and Cockney characters indicate that prints should be subtitled for U.S. distribution. In U.K., pic will play on Channel 4 before being released in cinemas.

It's a Free World...

U.K.-Italy-Germany-Spain-Poland

Production

A Pathe release (in U.K.) of a BIM Distribuzione (Italy)/EMC Produktion (Germany)/Tornasol Films (Spain)/SPI Intl. (Poland) presentation, in association with Channel 4, Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Polish Film Institute, Diaphana Distribution, Pathe Distribution, Cineart, Film Coopi, of a Sixteen Films production. (International sales: Pathe Pictures Intl., London.) Produced by Rebecca O'Brien. Executive producer, Ulrich Felsberg. Directed by Ken Loach. Screenplay, Paul Laverty.

Crew

Camera (color), Nigel Willoughby; editor, Jonathan Morris; music, George Fenton; production designer, Fergus Clegg; art director, Pete James; costume designer, Carole K. Fraser; sound (Dolby Digital), Ray Beckett; sound editor, Kevin Brazier; casting, Kahleen Crawford. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 1, 2007. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Masters.) Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Angie - Kierston Wareing Rose - Juliet Ellis Karol - Leslaw Zurek Jamie - Joe Siffleet Geoff - Colin Coughlin Andy - Raymond Mearns Derek - Frank Gilhooley Tony - David Doyle

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