Ken Loach has his say on the war in Iraq in this 'old-fashioned thriller of which John Le Carre would be proud'
Route Irish is a difficult film, an old-fashioned thriller of which John Le Carre would be proud. Its depiction of the brutal consequences of the Iraq War is not mainstream material. Ken Loach, however, is experienced at tackling the most harrowing of issues with consummate sensitivity. For him, this is familiar territory.
Whilst it deals with a contemporaneous situation, Route Irish is perhaps most comparable to Loach’s previous Troubles-set story, Hidden Agenda, which was concerned with political and military subterfuge in war-torn Northern Ireland.
'Route Irish' is a codename given by the British forces to the road leading from Baghdad International Airport to the International Zone. It is on this stretch of dusty terrain that Frankie (played by comedian John Bishop) is killed by an improvised explosive device.
The film’s preliminary scenes flit between the past and the present. Initially we are transported back to a Liverpool supporter’s club and shown Frankie being persuaded by his best friend, Fergus (Mark Womack) - formally of the SAS - to go and work for a private military company in Iraq.
Fergus decries Frankie’s initial reservations, informing him of the rich economic benefits (£10,000 per month) he earned whilst working in the same role at the outset of the war. The juxtaposing scenes eventually bring us forward to Fergus breaking down with anger at Frankie’s funeral.
Thereafter Fergus trawls over every detail about how his best friend died with a forensic intensity and challenges the rehearsed syntax of the military executives, who run the mercenary sideline that Fergus and Frankie had seen their fortunes tied up in.
Evidence eventually falls into Fergus’s possession that persuades him that Frankie was far from just another casualty of war. On an Iraqi mobile phone he discovers a harrowing video of Frankie witnessing members of his security team killing an innocent family only weeks before Frankie’s eventual death.
The theory is that his friend was killed as part of some sort of high-level cover-up. It is this obsessive need to learn the truth that consumes Fergus and drives the action forward.
For Route Irish, Loach was reunited with cinematographer Chris Menges. Menges had worked on previous Loach features, including that other lugubrious film about friendship and loss, Kes.
The image and tone of the conflicting forces at work in Route Irish are excellently rendered by Loach and Menges, and the viewer is drawn into a tight and claustrophobic world where instability reigns and people are presented as pawns in a dangerous game.
Route Irish, however, is very much concerned with human paranoia and misery, friendship and the (un) justification, as Loach sees it, of war in a foreign land. It will not be to everyone’s taste and it is sure to provoke much debate about a controversial conflict that is likely to intrigue film-makers and writers for decades to come.
Route Irish runs in the Queen's Film Theatre until April 21.