Dir: Marc Munden. UK. 2007. 90mins
Moral dilemmas both public and personal form the core of The Mark of Cain, a gripping and very timely drama about British forces in Iraq. Written by playwright and TV screenwriter Tony Marchant (Kid in the Corner, Holding On), a specialist in bringing political issues to dramatic life, The Mark of Cain is a hard-hitting account of army malpractice, its effect on its perpetrators, and the light it sheds on official military and political morality.
Winner of the Amnesty International Movies That Matter Award in Rotterdam, where it premiered, the film should generate considerable debate on the festival circuit, and will no doubt raise tempers, as intended to do, when it makes its small-screen debut on Channel 4 later this year.
Whether it gets a British theatrical showcase is to be confirmed, but sales prospects are healthy. At the very least, the film should attract the same kind of media attention as the Winterbottom/ Whitecross docu-drama The Road to Guantanamo last year.
An opening intertitle notes that the film is fictional, but based on extensive research, leaving viewers to make their own connections with recent cases of alleged prisoner abuse by British soldiers in Iraq.
The story focuses on two 18-year-old recruits serving in Basra with the British peackeeeping force. The film begins with the court martial of Shane Gulliver (McNulty), then flashes back to Basra, 2003, where he and callow pal Mark Tate, aka 'Treacle' (Kearns) face rough horseplay from their fellow squaddies, notably seasoned Lance-Corporal Quealy (Gregory).
When an Iraqi crowd expect the Brits to beat up a Kuwaiti detainee, Treacle balks at joining in, but it is not long before he is hardened to army ways. After the platoon's captain is killed in an ambush, British feelings run high, and Iraqi detainees are dealt rough summary justice under the auspices of Corporal Gant (Dooley), with senior officers turning a blind eye.
Back home, Gulliver finds himself and Treacle - who are anything but innocent - facing court martial, scapegoated by the army to cover up its own systematic abuses.
The film is particularly vivid, if at times confusing, in a first hour - shot in Tunisia - which throws the viewer into the heat of action. Photographed kinetically and in highly-charged colour by Matt Gray, the action evokes the noise and confusion surrounding young men out of their depth in a conflict they don't understand.
As the drama builds up, it's clear that 'peacekeeping' is a euphemism, since at best it involves a degree of violence. But the film forcefully illustrates how a hypocritical army culture rife with machismo and racism is bound to erode ethical behaviour.
The drama becomes slightly less distinctive once the men return to England, as the script - necessarily perhaps - becomes more discursive about the issues at stake. Central to the film's argument is the paradoxical concept of 'moral courage' which soldiers are expected to display, but do so at their peril.
Despite some distracting stylistic flourishes, the film generally sets a sober, intense mood, with Munden - whose most recent TV work was the BBC's shopaholism story Shiny Shiny Bright New Hole in My Heart - moving confidently into the sort of political drama associated with directors such as Paul Greengrass. The two young leads, plus Dooley as their corrupt superior, also make a strong impression.
Red Production Company
Independent Film Company