With its exploration of individual guilt versus institutional culpability, and setting of the British Army in Iraq, it's no surprise "The Mark of Cain" picked up Amnesty Intl.'s Movies That Matter prize at Rotterdam.

With its exploration of individual guilt versus institutional culpability, and setting of the British Army in Iraq, it’s no surprise “The Mark of Cain” picked up Amnesty Intl.’s Movies That Matter prize at Rotterdam. Nicely played drama by TV helmer Marc Munden never shakes a small-screen feel (“Cain” is skedded for broadcast on Blighty’s Channel 4 later this year), turning preachy when emotional addresses interrupt the action in a message-driven “this is an important telefilm” way. Still, crix reception will be strong and a small Stateside release is possible.

Pic could only have been more topical if released immediately following the Abu Ghraib revelations, an obvious source of inspiration along with the “extensive research” touted in the opening credits. Eighteen-year-old Mark (Gerard Kearns), nicknamed Treacle, is shipped off to Basra with his friend Shane (Matthew McNulty). Recruits are warned that the “mark of Cain” will be branded on any private mistreating the locals, but the soldiers quickly learn there are times when a little public beating is encouraged.

These early scenes in Iraq (actually shot in Tunisia) are the most cinematic, and Munden is especially good at evoking the paranoia of a group of fresh-faced country boys discovering that even a Coke can might conceal a detonator. When their company captain is killed in an ambush, Corporal Gant (Shaun Dooley), previously a voice of reason, decides it’s time for the unit to mete out their own brand of justice, encouraging his men in the kinds of mental and physical tortures made notorious at Abu Ghraib.

Once back in the U.K., Treacle and Shane find adjusting to home life difficult. Shane, a more active participant in the tortures than the reluctant Treacle, shows off the snapshots he took to g.f. Shelly (Naomi Bentley), who releases them to the press when she discovers he’s been cheating on her. The big brass announce an investigation, but the low men on the totem pole are left unprotected by their superiors, and Treacle, haunted by guilt, cracks under his own self-disgust.

Scripter Tony Marchant built a reputation for tackling major topics on the small screen, and his undisguised purpose is to draw attention to the off-handedness with which officers sacrificeenlisted men who are merely conforming to accepted, even encouraged, behavior.

Film’s construction, however, feels a little too crafted, saving the full revelations for a climactic courtroom scene whose power is undercut by the rather obvious build-up.

Problems also arise in Shane’s character, turned into a hero for the purposes of viewer identification but thereby making it too easy to forget he was an enthusiastic participant in the brutality. Not that he should be a monster, but the metaphorical bleach job on Shane’s mark of Cain is too pat for comfort.

Despite their youth, most cast members have strong U.K. TV credentials; while Kearns is top notch, McNulty’s turn is the showier perf.

Tech credits don’t betray the low budget, though sound is occasionally muffled. Strong accents, and scenes with walkie-talkies, could benefit from subtitling for American auds.

The Mark of Cain

U.K.

Production

A Film 4 presentation a Red Prod. Co. production. (International sales: Independent, London.) Produced by Lynn Horsford. Executive producers, Liza Marshall, Nicola Shindler. Co-producer, Katy Jones. Directed by Marc Munden. Screenplay, Tony Marchant.

Crew

Camera (color), Matt Gray; editor, Philip Kloss; music, Ben Bartlett; production designer, Luana Hanson; art director, Frederic Evard; costume designer, Alexandra Caulfield; sound (Dolby Digital), Tim Barker; line producer, Veronica Castillo; assistant director, Dan Winch; casting, Rachel Freck. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (Cinema of the World), Jan. 27, 2007 (Also in Berlin Film Festival -- market.) Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Matthew McNulty, Gerard Kearns, Shaun Dooley, Leo Gregory, Alistaire Petry, Shaun Dingwall, Brendan Coyle, William Atkinson, Shaun Dingwall, Naomi Bentley, Dhaffer L'Abidine, Heather Craney, Matthew Graville, Houda Echouafni.
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