Dir: Ken Loach • WRI: Paul Laverty • PRO: Rebecca O’Brien • DOP: Chris Menges • ED: Jonathan Morris • DES: Fergus Clegg • CAST: Stephen Lord, John Bishop, Najwa Nimri
When Ken Loach is mentioned, ideas of realism, grit, drama and, above all, fearless filmmaking are conjured. Loach’s last film, 2009’s beautifully resonant Looking for Eric, focused on the personal changes affected by a man taking control of his life, lending insight into a damaged psyche and a fractured nationality. Route Irish continues on this bent, having in its sights the societal changes occurring as a result of Britain’s ongoing involvement in Iraq, focusing, as is usual with Loach, on the personal struggle. For this director, it is the people that matter, and there is so much depth to parts of the movie that it is a huge disappointment to find that, as a whole, it just does not work.
Often criticised for his views on Britain, Loach nonetheless presents an honest portrayal – warts and all – of a nation in crisis and a society constantly on the brink of implosion. The story, here, revolves around Fergus (Mark Womack) and his best friend Frankie (comedian John Bishop), two Liverpudlian proletariats who employ themselves in the protection of contractors engaged in ‘rebuilding’ Iraq. It is Fergus, an ex-army hard-head, who convinces his childhood friend to join him in this dangerous land, where there is money to be made for two ex-soldiers. It ends badly for Frankie, who is killed on the infamous, and titular, ‘Route Irish’, known as the most dangerous road in Baghdad. The majority of the film takes place in Liverpool, as Fergus attempts to piece together events leading to Frankie’s death in Iraq, while he languished drunk in a police cell in England. Guilt, of course, is a leading factor in Fergus’ bull-headed determination to discover the truth, where all is not as it seems, and a massacred Iraqi family provides a link to some unsavoury elements of their jobs as hired gunmen.
The acting is sporadically fantastic, but mostly just passable – although, John Bishop surprises as a likeable and human Frankie, making his death that bit more accessible to the audience. However, the lingering feeling is that Frankie’s death is a little too important in the face of the actual tragedy of both these men profiting from a ludicrous situation in Iraq. An Iraqi musician, (played by Tarib Rasool), helps Fergus piece together some clues from Frankie’s death, and provides some righteous anger in the face of the underlying Iraqi situation, but his efforts end in retribution and fear. Frankie’s wife, (Andrea Lowe), provides the face of the British public – never questioning his job, and keeping a distance from the idea of her husband as a killer in a foreign land.
There is tragedy to be had in many set-ups: some flashback shots of Baghdad under siege, children caught in crossfire; the effect of Frankie’s death on his wife; the entanglement of Fergus and Frankie’s intense friendship. All in all, however, the film plays more like a revenge thriller than an emotive social document – losing a lot of its power, and all of its resonance, in the process. Explosions and gunfire, water-boarding torture scenes and Mel-Gibsonesque reprisals leave the personal tragedies to timidly murmur in the background – certainly not something expected from an eminently realistic director. In the end, the movie plods where it should gallop, and whispers when it should shout. It fails to adequately represent the tragedy of capitalist interest in Iraq, the massacre of innocents, or the more fundamental heartbreak of losing a best friend. Whilst not a total write-off, we have come to expect far more from Loach, and as such Route Irish stands as a disappointing turn from a director that can do far better.
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Route Irish is released on 18th March 2011