The colour of money is tainted with civilian blood in Ken Loach’s return to serious subject matter. After his light-hearted, dreamy departure from violence and politics with Looking for Eric, in Route Irish he tells the story of an ex-soldier turned private security contractor Fergus (Mark Womack) who smells a rat after finding incriminating evidence of atrocities carried out and covered up by his unscrupulous employer in the days leading up to his best friend’s death.
Fergus returns home to Liverpool for the funeral of his colleague and childhood friend Frankie (John Bishop). Having worked together as security contractors in Iraq, Frankie is killed on Route Irish, a notoriously dangerous stretch of road between Baghdad airport and the Green Zone.
Fergus learns that days before Frankie died he witnessed the murder of a family of Iraqis by one of his colleagues and had threatened to go public. Fergus refuses to accept his firm’s official explanation for Frankie’s death, suspecting it was not an accident.
With the help of Frankie’s grieving widow Rachel (Andrea Lowe) he struggles to uncover a link between this latest untold atrocity and Frankie’s death. Involving an Iraqi musician named Harem (Talib Rasool) to help him translate a video of the crime captured on a mobile phone, Fergus draws unwanted attention to an already volatile political situation, endangering the lives of those close to him as well as his own.
In looking for someone to blame for Frankie’s death this rebel with a cause becomes a vigilante beyond control. His guilty conscience and short fuse lead him to commit explosive acts of brutal violence against others and, ultimately, himself, prompting him at one point during the film to confess to wanting ‘his old self back’.
Beginning, as it does, with a funeral, this quiet occasion filled with grief and frustration sets the tone for Route Irish: forlorn, sorrowful, tense, with one or two troubling incidents thrown in for traumatic effect. Cinematographer Chris Menges (The Reader, The Killing Fields) does his best to maintain this oppressive atmosphere throughout to really drill into the audience the sense of being trapped emotionally, psychologically and morally as Fergus is. The visual landscape is deliberately bereft of any colour or vibrancy to evoke the mood of our grieving protagonists as they struggle to come to terms with the hopelessness they feel.
Loach has in the past been concerned with stories that often reveal the deeper social and moral conflicts of our human experience. With Route Irish he explores the after-effects of combat, especially the painful legacy for the family and friends of those who witnessed atrocities on a daily basis, up close and impersonal, in the heat and hatred of war torn Baghdad. The question raised is this: What happens when ‘over there’ becomes ‘back home’ and you have to go from navigating IEDs (improvised explosive devices) to doing the weekly shop at Tesco?
Although 2009’s The Hurt Locker briefly touched on the difficulty of re-adjusting to civilian life after experiencing combat first hand, the closest recent comparison to Route Irish is 2010’s Triage which also tackled the issue of post-traumatic stress syndrome, from the perspective of a war photographer’s struggle to live with his experience of the conflict in Kurdistan.
Speaking of the difficulty of navigating a real quagmire of socio-political issues related to the Iraq war while focusing on and illustrating just one aspect of it, Loach explained that ‘the challenge is always to find the microcosm that suggests the bigger picture: the unresolved conflict, the contradiction that, when explored, reveals the landscape’. The ‘landscape’ this time is Iraq ‘in an English country garden’ as soldiers come home with the war still in their heads. As one ex-soldier has put it: ‘the army turns you on but nobody turns you off’.
The film also deals with the untold atrocities inflicted on the Iraqi people by the ‘Corporate Warriors’ at the business end of a War which is being gradually and, some say, deliberately privatised. There was believed to be up to 160,000 foreign contractors engaged in Iraq at the height of the operation, mercenaries engaged to help the allied forces flex its muscle on the streets of Baghdad. Few seem to be interested in the numbers of Iraqis killed by private contractors whose actions may be even less politically correct than the sanctioned slaughter carried out in the name of the Allied effort in the ‘War on Terror’.
Route Irish is ostensibly a politically volatile war drama but on a human level it is about broken people dealing with the memory of traumatic events in their broken lives. However, unfortunately, the film has about as much charm as the phrase ‘Baghdad Haircut’ and being set in a dreary and oppressive Liverpool doesn’t help much towards it being any less depressing than the plot intends. A solid drama from a seasoned genre veteran with enough difficult questions to keep you looking for an answer but just not as engaging and powerful as it might have been.
Ronan Wright blogs about films from Belfast at Filmplicity.