I had never seen a Ken Loach film prior to catching Route Irish, his last minute In Competition addition to the 63rd Cannes Film Festival. I had no real expectations, but was certainly curious to learn what all the fuss was about when it came to Loach and his work. However, I certainly didn’t expect what I got, which was a highly approachable Iraq War story I could recommend to general audiences and one that takes a much different approach to the war than the majority of the films before it. It may be about Iraq, but it doesn’t take place there and we aren’t dealing with soldiers in the traditional sense. It’s unique approach is what makes it worth watching, even if the story does falter a bit.
Set in Liverpool, the film follows Fergus (Mark Womack), a one-time private security contractor, who’s torn up by the news his lifelong friend Frankie (John Bishop) has been killed on Route Irish, the road between Baghdad airport and the Green Zone, also referred to simply as the most dangerous road in the world. Unwilling to accept the explanation for his death — “wrong place at the wrong time” — Fergus won’t rest until he finds out exactly what happened.
The absurdity of a privatized war and the ignorance society has for many that have died in Iraq jump to the head of the class when deciphering the message of Route Irish. One of the primary focus points here is “private contractors” or — as they are described in the press notes — private soldiers, Corporate warriors, security consultants and as the Iraqis refer to them, mercenaries. Route Irish sets its sights squarely on private military defense contractors making millions selling their services in Iraq with little concern for the destruction caused and the innocent lives lost. This is the story of two such contractors, one that has died for initially unknown reasons and another determined to find out what those reasons were and who’s to blame.
Mark Womack as Fergus, makes his feature film debut and reminds me of something of a scrawnier Jason Statham with a bit more emotional presence. It’s not a performance that will blow you away, but it works in a made-for-TV sense. Loach doesn’t ask too much of Womack, although a drunken sexual encounter is a bit overdone as well as a second instance when Womack’s character tortures a man. Neither moment comes off genuine.
Andrea Lowe playing Rachel, Frankie’s girlfriend, is the film’s other lead character. Her part of the story is purely emotional and hardly registers as a necessity to the overall narrative. Lowe is satisfactory in the role, but the sexual tension between her and Fergus isn’t exactly believable, necessary or very well fleshed out. I was happy Loach didn’t take things too far in these terms, but at the same time, a little bit was just enough for me to wish there had been none.
I don’t know Loach’s politics so I have no idea if there was an agenda here or not, but Route Irish is strong in its message and occasionally weak in its story. On top of being entertaining, I respect it for pointing out the atrocious nature of the privatized war taking place in Iraq, and the effect it has on those at home as much as it has on those on the battlefield.
However, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the irony of it all. Fergus was one of the contractors in Iraq making £10,000 a month, tax free for carrying out atrocities of his own. Yet here we are, in the audience, cheering him on as he searches for the story behind the murder of his friend. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s Biutiful had a similar theme to its story, but it was more upfront about it. With Route Irish a lot of Fergus’s behavior is masked by Hollywood style explosions and a fast paced storyline, whereas if you sit back and look it over, Fergus is no more righteous than the supposed “villains” of the film, he’s just not as greedy about it.
Route Irish is played In Competition at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival and will be competing for the Palm d’Or.