Route Irish -- Film Review

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CANNES -- You sorta knew Ken Loach's cheerful period, which consisted of one movie, last year's "Looking for Eric," wasn't going to last long, and it didn't. With "Route Irish," the English director is back taking on serious personal and political issues, in this instance the use of private contractors and security consultants in theaters of war.

He doesn't dig up anything new. You've already read about the many problems and moral challenges that arose when the Coalition Provisional Authority gave immunity from Iraqi law to such contractors in that country. So what Loach and his longtime collaborator, writer Paul Laverty, zero in on is the grief and explosive, potentially lethal anger in one such hired gun when a buddy comes back in a body bag.

The fact that "Route Irish" is constructed like a thriller may widen the film's theatrical and festival reach beyond Loach's usual audience. Critical reaction and any awards here at the Festival de Cannes may further enlarge that audience.

Fergus (Mark Womack) has known Frankie (John Bishop) since childhood in Liverpool, so he insists something's wrong when Frankie gets killed on Route Irish, the world's most dangerous road, as it links the Baghdad airport with the Green Zone. Fergus knows Frankie was "born lucky." He wouldn't have found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, as everyone maintains.

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Fergus shares his rage and anguish, along with his suspicions, with Frankie's partner, Rachel (Andrea Lowe). Frankie had been desperate to reach Fergus in the day before his death but they never connected. Then an Iraqi mobile phone shipped home with Frankie's possessions provides the first clue. His mate was incensed when a superior murdered an Iraqi family in a taxi that followed his vehicle too closely.

Downloading text messages from the phone, getting translations into English, doing Skype interviews with people in Iraq and using his own Special Forces training in tracking and surveillance, Fergus unravels what he believes was a conspiracy to hush up the fatal mistake and silence Frankie.

But this would pretty much turn the movie into a murder mystery where a good guy tracks down bad guys. Loach won't tolerate such a simplistic drama. Fergus and his late partner were part of the problem of private contractors: They too seized the opportunity to "load up" in the privatized war.
To extract information, Fergus is not above water-boarding a fellow contractor. And as his fury mounts, he only hears what he wants to hear. Two plus two can equal five as far as Fergus is concerned if that "confirms" his mate's death was act of treachery rather than fate.

Womack turns his character inside out to show a raw wound that will never heal. Fergus roams the city of Liverpool like a man bent on destruction. He fumes over his computer in his anesthetic high-rise flat, with hardly a stick of furniture in it, as the search for the truth about Frankie's death consumes him. He only finds peace on the ferry crossing the River Mersey, where he and his buddy would carouse and daydream as kids.

The only person who begins to understand him is Rachel. But their increasing closeness proves powerfully combustive. They love each other but that love channels through another person.
"Route Irish" fits into Loach's particular brand of social realism and political concerns. But politics plays a secondary role to an empathetic look at how grief can distort one's viewpoint even as it wrecks havoc on the soul. The anguish that drives Fergus also consumes him.
Liverpool, filmed in melancholy light by the wonderful cinematographer Chris Menges, itself become a character. The city has trapped the protagonist's memories and refuses to give him relief. Everything feeds his rage.

The film has many memorable moments, big and small, from a three-legged dog bouncing happily in the background in one scene to Fergus sighting random people in the street through a rifle's telescope or the inspired use of Kurdish singer/musician Talib Rasool as an Iraqi translator. His vocal lamentation at one point gives the film an eerie, haunted sensation.
You can see now see why the Festival de Cannes was so desperate to shoehorn this movie into Competition at the last minute. Few films the past week and a half have provided as much artistic satisfaction as "Route Irish."

Venue: Festival de Cannes -- Competition
Sales: Wild Bunch
Production companies: Sixteen Films/Why Not Productions/Wild Bunch
Cast: Mark Womack, Andrea Lowe, John Bishop, Geoff Bell, Jack Fortune, Talib Rasool, Craig Lundberg, Trevor Williams
Director: Ken Loach
Screenwriter: Paul Laverty
Producer: Rebecca O'Brien
Director of photography: Chris Menges
Production designer: Fergus Clegg
Music: George Fenton
Costume designer: Sarah Ryan
Editor: Jonathan Morris
No rating, 109 minutes
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