There is room for any number of allegorical treatises about the Iraq invasion and occupation, made by filmmakers with a social conscience. But sometimes you need someone just to step up and talk about the conflict, rather than hiding behind allegory, metaphor, or – worst of all – have-your-cake-and-eat-it action scenes, like the kind found in The Green Zone, Jarhead, The Kingdom, etc. Even the justly celebrated The Hurt Locker was, when the dust settled, a wholly uncritical celebration of American heroism in Iraq. So it’s good news that indomitable British director Ken Loach has chosen to follow Looking for Eric with a film that manages to bring the Iraq conflict home – both literally and figuratively. Imagine In the Valley of Elah, written by Alan Bleasdale and directed by Mike Leigh, and you’re on the right track.
Taking its name from squaddies’ nickname for the deadly stretch of rubble-strewn road linking Baghdad’s concrete-walled Green Zone with its international airport, Route Irish is an attempt s to make sense of yet another killing in an increasingly senseless conflict, now largely being run by private security contractors, the military action having moved to Afghanistan. At first, Fergus’ rejection of the official verdict looks like a by-product of grief. After all, as Frankie’s girlfriend Rachel (The Tudors’ Lowe) observes grimly, Fergus was closer to Frankie than she was. But the discovery of an Iraqi citizen’s mobile phone, recording the shooting of an innocent family, exposes a deep-rooted cover-up, turning the grieving pair into targets – and the film into a hard-hitting conspiracy thriller which, in its most thrilling moments, gives Bourne a run for his money.
Loach’s breakthrough film, Hidden Agenda, delved with considerable political acuity into murky goings-on in Northern Ireland, and Route Irish proves his finger is still on the pulse, and cinematographer Chris Menges, who took us to Iraq in Stop-Loss, does a terrific job of bringing Baghdad to Merseyside. But although the (semi-improvised) performances have an authenticity that goes beyond mere acting, Womack is a little too much of a tough guy to be truly sympathetic. Someone with a softer side – perhaps Paddy Considine, Michael Fassbender, or Loach favourite Ian Hart – might have helped the film engage not just the brain and the guts, but the heart as well.
As urgent and relevant as Hidden Agenda was two decades ago, Loach’s latest is an intelligent, insightful and quietly explosive thriller, so torn from today’s headlines it will leave newsprint on your hands.