There have been many fine films made about “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, from Michael Collins and Cal to Bloody Sunday and In The Name of the Father. Add to that list ’71, a gritty and adrenaline-soaked drama about a young British soldier, just out of boot camp in 1971, who gets shipped off to Belfast to help respond to what his commanding officer euphemistically calls the “deteriorating security situation.”
Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell, who catapulted to fame via the Japanese internment camp drama Unbroken) is the callow recruit who soon finds himself facing a hostile mob as his squad of soldiers drives to a key IRA neighbourhood to search for illegal guns in the home of a known terrorist. As a small riot erupts, Hook becomes separated from his unit and is quickly being chased by two young gunmen trying to kill him. Suddenly lost in a hostile and confusing landscape, the terrified Hook has to survive a night where it’s impossible to tell friend from foe.
Made on a small budget by veteran TV director Yann Demange, ’71 is permeated with a realism that acts as a sharp rebuke to the many sleekly filmed but morally vacant action flicks that are a staple at the multiplex. The poverty and despair of a violence-wracked city under martial law is handily evoked, while a scene of Catholic boys pitching plastic bags of piss at the loathed British soldiers adds a grubby, blackly comic pungency to the conflict. But minutes later, when a young private gets fatally shot in the face, it’s obvious just how high the stakes really are.
A work of fiction that is nonetheless true to the violent history of Northern Ireland, ’71 sketches in a few pertinent details – such as how the IRA was splintering into two factions as younger and more violent fighters began butting heads with the disciplined old guard – before taking off on an immersive, raw, and suspense-filled scramble through the madness of war-torn Belfast.
Hand held camera work, frantic chase scenes, and harsh moments of conflict and betrayal add a powerful sense of dislocation and anxiety. And the script never takes sides. By digging for the human truth of ordinary people caught up in this murderous conflict, the well acted ’71 pulls off the neat trick of being both a credible anti-war film and a brilliantly choreographed man-on-the-run thriller. This is a notable piece of work.
Stars Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris, David Wilmot
Directed by Yann Demange
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