Monday, 11 April 2011

'Route Irish' review:

After the comparatively light-hearted 'Looking For Eric', Ken Loach has returned to grittier fare with 'Route Irish', a drama about the privatisation of the war in Iraq which plays like a murder mystery detective story. Fergus (Mark Womack) learns that his lifelong best friend Frankie (John Bishop) has been killed by roadside bomb on Baghdad's most dangerous road - Route Irish - whilst working for a private military company. Being an ex-soldier himself, Fergus is suspicious of the official account of how his friend was killed and starts contacting former colleagues and making inquiries before inevitably attracting the attention of those at the top.

Aside from the occasional flashback or video recording, 'Route Irish' is set in Liverpool, and Loach does an incredible job of bringing the Iraq war home to the UK. Over the course of Fergus' investigation we witness the use of so-called waterboarding torture, carried out in an abandoned garage by a motorway. We are also shown a gang of private soldiers turned loose on a number of British homes as they try to regain evidence of a war crime - with their brutal methods directed towards a British Muslim aiding Fergus. These moments take now familiar images of the conflict and put them in a new and, for many, more identifiable context where the basic inhumanity of the acts is crystal clear.

Writer Paul Laverty's dialogue can be a little on the nose at times, with the earnest, highly politicised subtext often working in the foreground, yet it is great to see Loach still making such transparently socialist films in the era of 'The King's Speech'. There is never any doubt of Loach's identification with the working class in 'Route Irish', with the real villain being capitalism as fronted by smartly dressed social elites. (So undesirable to Loach are the trappings of well-heeled conformity that he has Fergus break open Frankie's coffin prior to his funeral and remove the necktie he has been fitted with.) As with the criminal gang in 'Looking For Eric', those working class lads who terrorise others do so out of self-interest and, usually, for money - in effect betraying their social class. As always crime and capitalism are portrayed as equally anti-social.

As a former private security soldier, Fergus is also guilty of complicity with these values as he waged war abroad for a £10,000 a month paycheck. The progression of his character is driven by this guilt, compounded by the fact that Fergus persuaded Frankie into taking up the same work in the first place - effectively making him culpable for his friend's death. He begins his criminal investigation motivated only by a thirst for revenge but, but as he comes to realise the full horror of the PMCs, with their legal immunity giving rise to all manner of cowboy antics, his motivation becomes more noble and in the end he seeks redemption for his own crimes.

It's occasionally a heavy-handed affair, but a decade on from the start of the "War on Terror" Loach is taking a unique look at this much-filmed conflict. He does so with a really well paced thriller, which lasts just under two hours but never lags. Fergus is a sort of working class James Bond - ditching dinner jacket glamour and fealty to the crown for hard-edged blue-collar smarts - as he uses gadgets and guile to uncover the central mystery. 'Route Irish' works as a cracking whodunnit as much as a highly political commentary.

'Route Irish' is out now in the UK and rated a '15' by the BBFC.

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