Did we like it?
A relentlessly bleak but absorbing drama, yet for all of its laudable qualities the impact was diminished because of the unflinching realism that ultimately severed the vital link between protagonist and viewer.
What was good about it?
• The typically low key directing style of Ken Loach where he draws perfectly natural performances from all his cast, accentuating the matter-of-factness of their existences as if this isn’t a remarkable tale that is bursting to be told but as mundane as picking out a car amid the rush hour throng and tracing it to its destination.
• Kierston Wareing as Angie, the impulsive, strong-willed protagonist who sets up her own business importing dirt cheap labour after she is unjustly sacked by her recruitment agency. Wareing captured Angie’s sense of outrage and how she used her furious momentum to embark on a risky venture with her friend Rose (Juliet Ellis).
• The narrative of the story was the slow erosion of Angie’s morality. At first, although a little brusque with the hordes of migrant workers who turned up seeking work with her agency, she at least treated them as human beings. However, as matters became more difficult after she was let down by a contractor, her demeanour changed – she regarded the migrants like cattle on their way to slaughter bawling abuse at them and herding them into vans, whereas before she had been concerned by little things such as shutting fast the van doors or finding a home for a legitimate Iranian asylum seeker.
• The clever way in which Angie’s long-suffering parents weren’t so susceptible to her waxy spiel as the eager migrant workers. Her dad especially was disgusted by her actions in not paying her workers the minimum wage, and pretty much represented the wearied voice of the tolerant population when he was dismayed that “school teachers, doctors come over here and work as waiters”. And many did worse jobs than that; acting out repetitive motions that you would normally see in machinery, these scenes captured the dehumanising plight of many migrant workers.
• Soon, Angie’s workers learned not to trust her promises as much as her parents yet they reacted by viciously assaulting her in the street and eventually kidnapping her son and threatening to kill him if she didn’t pay them the £30,000 she owed them after one of her clients went bust.
• The sad revelation that there are probably many unscrupulous factory owners like Tony the shirt manufacturer who prefer to exploit illegal workers as he has to pay them less and they are more subservient as they have no legal right to be in Britain and risk deportation if they become conspicuous.
• How Karol (Leslaw Zurek), an intelligent Pole who has a brief affair with Angie, is utterly demoralised by the “liars” and awful work he has to do in London despite being bi-lingual. He lives alongside many other equally downtrodden migrants in a caravan park that appeared on the verge of becoming one of those appalling shanty towns that fringe cities in the developing world like a thick ring of cancerous smoke.
What was bad about it?
• The descent of Angie into a selfish state of amorality akin to the perception much of the audience would have of the notorious gangmasters who routinely treat migrant workers little better than legalised slaves was too painful, and by the end unbearable.
• Her most shocking decision was to grass up the residents of the shanty town (including the family of the Iranian dissident) in order to get the authorities to deport them, thus leaving the caravan park vacant for her new batch of illegal workers from Ukraine. Angie justified her actions when Rose complained “We make a living out of them”, by replying “We all do”; a retort typical of the guilt-ridden who seek to dilute and disseminate their contrition by ascribing their behaviour as ‘human’. At this point, Rose bailed out on her, and we followed, making the last half-hour or so a soulless, predictable denouement.
• While sacrificing the realism of Angie’s ruthlessness over dramatic sensibilities was brave it also had the effect of washing away all the goodwill you’d built up for Angie in hoping she could succeed against the towering odds. But her conduct left you feeling like shipwreck survivor swimming away from the wreck, dragging a dazed crewmate to safety but realising that they are wilfully gulping down the briny seawater making themselves heavier and heavier until they are so bloated they are now more ocean than person and that you no longer have the strength to support them.
• Things were made even more despairing with the kidnap of Angie’s son, as those who briefly took him seemed to be previously decent folk driven to depths of dishonour by desperation – like Angie – as they demanded the money owed to them rather than trying to muscle in on her business – “As long as you have enough money to buy a 4×4, what do you care?”. We weren’t expecting a happy ending, but we would at least have savoured some enticement to be there at the end other than the laborious obligation of a critic.