I’m not sure why I didn’t see Route Irish on its cinema release. Watching it now on DVD is not ideal but I can see that this is a complex work that feels very different but nonetheless shares elements from several titles across Loach’s back catalogue. It isn’t an easy film and seems to have almost been designed to alienate a casual viewer. Certainly it has fared very poorly in the UK (opening at No 27 on only 22 screens) and it’s interesting that the IMdb entry for the film carries few ‘external reviews’ from the usual critics and a pretty thin collection of ‘user reviews’ and bulletin postings – mostly condemning or praising the film on the basis of its politics or its status as a ‘thriller’. As usual for a Loach film, Route Irish opened on many more screens in France (126) for a Top 20 entry in Week 1 – but the screen average was still disappointing and this looks like being the least successful Loach-Laverty film for some time. Thanks to pre-sales, however, Sweet Sixteen Films is unlikely to lose its shirt.
Route Irish is about a metaphorical ‘journey’ taken by the lead character Fergus Molloy (Liverpool actor Mark Womack, mainly seen on British TV). As Loach points out in an interview, Fergus does not seek redemption as in a Hollywood movie. Instead he attempts to make some connection with the man he used to be. It’s virtually impossible and there is no happy ending. Fergus is an ex-soldier, once in the SAS. It is 2007 and for the last few years he has been working as a security contractor in Iraq running his own team but now he is back in Liverpool, unable to leave the country after a night-club incident and the confiscation of his passport. He is distraught when he hears that his best friend Frankie (played by the Liverpool comedian John Bishop), who he persuaded to join him on the team, has been killed on ‘Route Irish’, the most dangerous road in Iraq between the airport and the ‘Green Zone’. Frankie’s funeral sees the highly sceptical Fergus begin to ask questions, not believing anything of what he hears about Frankie’s death – especially from the men who run the security operation. He has one lead – a mobile phone that Frankie had left with a mutual friend for safekeeping and which carries photos and short video clips.
The phone provides a narrative device that allows the audience to ‘witness’ scenes from the security work in Iraq (filmed on location in Jordan). Fergus gets an Arabic and Kurdish translation of dialogue from a Kurdish refugee in Liverpool – recalling the use of refugee characters in Ladybird, Ladybird and Carla’s Song. We also experience flashbacks as Fergus discusses being a soldier with Rachel, Frankie’s girlfriend (who might have known Fergus first). In fact, the film begins with quite a subtle use of flashback which I didn’t immediately twig – as Fergus looks out across the Mersey, leaning over the rail of the ferry he hears the last messages that Frankie left on his phone. Cut to the title and then back to two young men larking about on the same ferry. The image is slightly degraded but the production can’t afford to present an image of 30 years ago, so it is only later that we get confirmation that this was indeed Fergus and Frankie as teens bunking off school and dreaming of travels overseas.
The ‘action’ of the film has been described as ‘Bourne-like’ by some critics and derided by action fans. It has also been suggested that it is a distinct change for Loach. Most of this commentary is nonsense of course. There is no attempt to compete with Hollywood on action scenes. Yes there are explosions and violent, brutal actions but similar things have happened in films throughout Loach’s career. The difference for me is Fergus as a lead. Womack plays him, successfully in my view, as severely emotionally damaged, barely under control, never sure when he is lying, fooling himself or being coldly honest. Often the characters at the centre of Loach films – scripted by Paul Laverty or the earlier ones by Jim Allen – have some form of warmth, some charisma, some sense of hope. Fergus has a difficult relationship, dependent on violence, with Rachel. One of the few times he laughs is when he is watching another ex-soldier, his friend Craig, playing for a blind football team. The image of Fergus laughing as Craig, wearing an Everton shirt, blunders into another player is very affecting. (Loach, a big football supporter, made one of his best TV plays in 1968 about supporters of the Golden Vision – Alex Young, Everton’s centre forward in the early 1960s.)
So, what are the politics of Route Irish that so enrage/bore some reviewers? I think that there are a couple of lines of dialogue that don’t quite work – Fergus remarks that Iraqi families ‘turned over’ by British and American soldiers will end up supporting Al Qaeda. This doesn’t seem to fit with Fergus. He is a political animal only in the way that he represents the damage done to the men who have served. His actions in the film are driven by guilt and revenge – and by this desperate attempt to re-discover something of what he and Frankie had before they became soldiers. In the process of doing this, Fergus reveals the political points that Laverty and Loach want to make about the futile British ‘mission’ and the damage done to Iraq and its people. In this respect, Route Irish feels like an honest film about a shameful period of British history in which British troops were asked to fight an illegal war and then, with private contractors (making huge profits), to clear up the mess. The look of the film is cold and bleak and although Liverpool has appeared in several earlier Loach plays and films, here there are few shots (the ferry apart) that are recognisable and none that romanticise the city – everything is presented by Chris Menges in a very different style to the Kestrel Films productions such as Black Jack in 1979.
The original Press Conference from Cannes in 2010: