Ken Loach is angry about Iraq and he wants you to know it. The thing is Ken Loach is always angry, and this is both the biggest strength of this film and its biggest weakness. ‘Route Irish’ is a story about the private security industry in post-war Iraq, and the way in which the British working class are hired by unscrupulous profiteers, often at the cost of their lives. Loach as ever offers a fierce, class-based perspective on what remains a largely secret war – it’s often gruelling stuff, often brilliantly acted, but its uncompromising viewpoint leaves you questioning the point of it. If an all-time great film-maker insists on making a film which is so harsh it’s barely entertaining, how does he think he’ll get his message across (however valid)? Who’ll want to come and watch it? It’s not ‘Hurt Locker’ after all.
Mark Womack plays Fergus, a former soldier and mercenary who doesn’t believe the official explanation of his life-long best friend Frankie’s (John Bishop) death in Iraq. As he investigates (with the help of Frankie’s girlfriend Andrea Lowe), Fergus finds the ruthless lengths which the private security firm they were both attached to will go to in order to retain their lucrative contracts. Will a man already angry and impatient be able to hold it together long enough in order to bring those responsible for Frankie’s death to book?
Loach’s latest is little more than a glorified blogpost – a polemic against the security industry in post-war Iraq, and how the working classes aren’t just being butchered there as a result, but how the secret war they’re involved in is being exported back here. It’s fantastic that he’s exploring a story which most of the media are largely ignoring, but his his relentless, uncompromising position on his subject matter is regularly offputting. His leads are ghoulish stereotypes, and whilst they may be true to life they’re hardly enjoyable characters to spend time watching. Loach has been around long enough surely to get off his high horse and compromise some analysis for entertainment value, but he persists in retaining production values better suited for television (despite some impressively well-shot action sequences filmed in Jordan).
Paul Laverty’s script irritatingly veers from intelligent to overblown, as a dour (but worthy) investigation into the issues turns into an exercise in revenge, as Fergus kills first the fellow contractor he believed murdered Frankie, and then the bosses of the firm itself, before committing suicide. The consequences of his actions are never properly looked at, and the waterboarding sequence endured by co-star Trevor Williams was surely unnecessary in making the sociological points Loach wants rammed down your throat. You can’t help but wonder if the sudden change in tone was imposed on the veteran film maker (the film was financed by more film companies and authorities than I’ve ever seen before), as the impact of his investigation is largely lost. It would surely have been far more enjoyable and worthwhile to have seen the impact of contractors continuing to war back in the UK.
Having said that, if Loach is your thing you can’t miss this. You won’t exactly leave feeling warm hearted, but you will have learned something about the war you may not have understood before, and he should be commended for achieving that. Pity that his audience will be so small he might as well not have bothered.