60 – ‘Route Irish’ by Ken Loach.
One of the later pieces by director Ken Loach, ‘Route Irish’ is a rather different addition to his collection of ‘social realist’ films. Set during the aftermath of a security contractor’s death in Iraq, the film draws largely on the grieving of loved ones that ‘Frankie’ has left behind. Meanwhile the story itself, more importantly, is propelled by the growing curiosity of his best friend and former paratrooper, Fergus (played by Mark Womack), who suspects foul play.
Loach is renowned in the film industry as being a through-and-though veteran of British cinema, one of the few long-standing figures that Hollywood was never able to poach. His films have gained him a reputation as one who openly discusses social issues through his work, particularly those which correspond with current affairs and overlooked problems within the UK; issues such as homelessness, crime and class divide. Loach has stated in interviews that he was strongly influenced by Vittorio De Sica’s work, claiming ‘The Bicycle Thieves’ to be a major influence. Aside from his political stances, he is an advocate of honest, natural-styled film-making wherever possible; so improvisation, realism (lack of special effects and relatively unknown actors) and genuine locations are a part of the visual repertoire that define him as an auteur. Loach makes a point in all of his films to preserve geographic authenticity wherever possible, so in this case, the strong Liverpudlian accents amongst many of the actors genuinely indicate their geographic roots within the context of the film, not to mention the decision to shoot locations that, by Hollywood’s standards, are inconceivable.
The thematic influences of neo-realism are easily detectable, however they have been updated to contemporary standards, to suit Loach’s style of story-telling and sociopolitical context. Route Irish’s central themes are that of injustice, institutional corruption and revenge. Moreover, these elements are blended into a tumultuous set of characters who struggle to cope with day-to-day life after their traumatic experiences as soldiers in the Middle East.
The ever-controversial topic of the western presence in Iraq is frequently discussed in the film, in particular the allegations of war-crimes and similar atrocities committed by gun-for-hire firms (that are granted immunity by the government), not to mention the suffering Iraqis that have (for a long time) been ignored by the media and the military.
There are certain scenes which force us as the viewer to face these issues (despite the mainstream’s efforts to hide away for so long), such as Nelson’s drive-by massacre of a family, the mobile phone footage of the attack that is nearly leaked online, and the subsequent efforts by the contractor group to pay off those who could expose the truth. These instances also act as narrative devices, dramatically pushing the story forward as incidental ‘ripples’ from the initial event.
However it is important to note that as a Ken Loach film, Route Irish gained a controversial reception during it’s initial screening. Mark Kermode called it ‘just acceptable’, arguing that it wasn’t up to standards in comparison to his other work. It is true that as a ‘social-realist’ Loach had deviated from his standard approach, especially considering his reputation for extensively casting amateurs, small-time actors and more importantly, creating seamless dialogues with authentic responses. Route Irish is not without these elements, however they are not on the same level as his previous works.
Nonetheless the film still follows the cine-language of the director’s influences: The composition of the shots, particularly during times of action and conflict are rough, shaky, almost disorientating at times. Elsewhere, the camera’s movements are smooth, seamless but mobile. In fact, totally stationary shots are very rare; when they are used it is often to focus on ‘found footage’ or video calls which are used within the film to prevent a disruption of real time. The course is strictly linear, with the exception of two crucial scenes early on in the film.
Route Irish, although it was not totally devoid of similarities, has inevitably picked up from classical modes of representation; continuity editing is still being used to logically connect ‘separate realities’ in a short space of time (Bazin, 2005:28). But this is an obvious pitfall of most films, even Bazin (in ‘An Aesthetic Of Reality’) admits that films, despite the endless drive for perfect re-productions, are always flawed.
“It can not make reality entirely its own because reality must inevitably elude it at some point.”
The concept of absolute truthful film-making is, naturally, not always be possible in the film. For example, the Route Irish ambush scenes were shot in Jordan, but only as the actual location (as the film states) was too dangerous. But aside from the setting difficulties and occasional blend of Hollywood styled representation, the film is still rooted in real current affairs. Loach’s devotion to ‘realism’ even led to the ‘waterboarding’ scene being realistically constructed, with the actors actually torturing one-another on set. With water-boarding being a frequently discussed issue in the media, that is closely linked with war-time atrocities in the Middle-East, Loach is arguably making a reference to the horrors that individuals bring back home with them.
Like the Bicycle Thieves and many other neo-realist films, the moral or ‘lesson’ which is so commonly constructed in films such as these is present. The closure is delivered in a sobering ‘eye-for-an-eye’ moral punch line, which totally opposes the Hollywood system’s typical approach of positive ideological reinforcement. Like De Sica, Loach leaves the audience in a state of reflection, instead of satisfaction. The dangerous potential of revenge and injustice is portrayed through tragedy paid with tragedy, leaving the piece without a victor or a happy ending.
BAZIN, A. (2005). What is cinema?, Vol. 2. Berkeley, University of California Press. P28-29
Kermode, M. (2011) Route Irish reviewed by Mark Kermode. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbVvkfYJxhc [Accessed: 24/01/13].
Route Irish (2010) [film] Sixteen Films: Ken Loach.
Thelocationguide.com (2011) Ken Loach films on location in Liverpool, Manchester and Jordan for Route Irish | The Location Guide. [online] Available at: http://www.thelocationguide.com/blog/2011/03/ken-loach-films-on-location-in-liverpool-manchester-and-jordan-for-route-irish/ [Accessed: 24 Jan 2013].