Shiny Shelf


LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: Route Irish

By Jim Smith on 25 October 2010

‘Route Irish’ is about occupied Iraq but it does not take place there, the odd photograph and short flashback aside. It instead takes place in Liverpool, in the very recent past. In it we follow Fergus (Mark Womack) a retired soldier and more recently retired ’security consultant’ as he attempts to uncover the truth about the death of his friend Frankie (John Bishop) in Bagdhad in September 2007.

The title,  in case you are unaware, is a reference to what the road from Baghdad airport to the city’s ostensibly safe ‘Green Zone’ was called by British troops and “contractors” during the occupation.  This, I think makes the choice of setting this fictional, if emblematic, account of some of the war’s consequences in Liverpool, more than coincidental. Liverpool is itself a traditionally disembarking point for people from across the Irish sea arriving in Britain and many Liverpudlians, including the film’s protagonists, have Irish antecedents. That reference, that almost-pun,  seems to me important in understanding the film’s objectives.

That is not to say that the film ever forgets for a moment that those who suffered most following the invasion of Iraq were the Iraqi people themselves.  It just that it acknowledges that the working class Liverpudlians it portrays, who entered the Army before they were adults and later became security contractors on the promise of a year’s wages in a week, are themselves victims of the culture that produced the war, albeit in a different and more acquiescent way.

That probably sounds more simplistic than it is and more simplistic than the film presents it as being, because  ‘Route Irish’ is a film which is largely aware of its own contradictions. Its staged ‘resolved with an explosion’ Hollywood ending is sandwiched between something that itself could easily have been the same kind of a catharsis and a muted, fitting and arguably symbolic suicide. Its protagonist is far from entirely sympathetic, despite the devoted and unselfishness nature of his quest and he voices, at times, opinions that the audience is clearly not expected to accept or share.

Womack is excellent as Fergus, portraying a damaged, seething man struggling his way towards some sort of greater political understanding in the process of trying to protect his friend’s memory. Comedian John Bishop is extremely effective as that friend, Frankie, a character who appears only in flashback, and most of that via material ostensibly shot by a mobile phone.  Craig Lundberg, a British soldier blinded in Iraq plays, effectively, himself in what is probably the most remarkable film debut you’ll ever see. Kudos too to Trevor Williams (Nelson) who agreed to be actually waterboarded for scenes where his character is. The resulting scene, more distressing even than a similarly unstaged one in 1976’s ‘The XYY Man’, shot when no one in the Western world was publicly pretending that the practice wasn’t torture. Which is is.

This is not a film that even tries to resolve the issues it raises. In some ways it simply seems to want to bring some issues (such as the notorious Order 17 – look it up) to greater public consciousness through what is also an accessible piece of drama. When, as part of the narrative, “techniques” (such as the aforementioned waterboarding) which are applied day to day in Iraq, are applied in the suburbs of Liverpool, the audience does recoil.  By such means (which admittedly occasionally trip the film up) ‘Route Irish’ avoids being a lecture and instead becomes an illustration. Why is three masked men beating down the door of a semi in Selsey different to doing the same in Basra? It’s not, but the former is shocking and the latter isn’t because we allow ourselves to collude in the notion, however unwillingly, that these things are somehow not the same.

That said, while ‘Route Irish’ has a clear and complex understanding of its themes and politics it is, in other ways, lamentably simplistic. Structurally this is a detective story and a straightforward, linear one at that. There’s also an element of sexual or romantic tension between Womack’s Frankie and Andrea Lowe’s Rachel that the film would have been better without (and which, in any case, goes nowhere interesting and slowly). There are times when, particularly as the story enters full on ‘conspiracy thriller’ mode towards the very end, moments when it too closely resembles the kind of fiction which it is, for the most part effectively, interrogating.

‘Route Irish’ is not Loach’s best film, but it is good and it may do good. That’s enough. It’s more than enough.


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