Just a little history lesson to start off. The Troubles which this film revolves around was a conflict regarding Northern Ireland’s want for independence and the issue being split between against splitting (mostly Protestants) and for splitting (mostly Catholics) which morphed into a ethnic issue also. ’71 is a solid action thriller that has tension and good acting to make up for a flimsy plot and annoying shaky cam.
Jack O’Connell plays Gary Hook, a private in the British Army sent to Belfast, who finds himself separated from his men during a raid that turns into a riot. His mission thereon is to survive the night and get back to his barracks. This is the entire plot – or perhaps should have been. Events are complicated by Captain Sandy Browning’s (Sean Harris) undercover operatives, whose methods are, shall we say, ‘questionable’ and whose allegiances are ‘fluid’. I wonder about the casting of the ever-excellent Harris in a role that seems to demand brawny over creepy, but it shouldn’t detract from what is a very accomplished directorial debut from Yann Demange.
Gregory Burke’s script stripped down to the point of sparseness. There’s a moment when a sympathetic doctor explains the entire structure of the military hierarchy through a handful of choice words, three of which are the same and begin with “C”. The screenplay is merely a vehicle for the experience of one soldier – one pawn – as he witnesses someone else’s war from the inside. It’s an intense experience; a brisk exercise in tension and spasms of violence, rather than out-and-out action. Mirroring the horrifying situation in Northern Ireland at the time, there’s a sense that anyone can die, any time, in the blink of an eye. The evocation of the period is impressive, without resorting to TV clips and newsreels; instead, it’s all crap cars and crapper clothes.
As high concept thrillers go, there are no new ideas as such, simply a new setting in which to deposit those old ideas. Permeating is an air of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York – and I would have preferred more Carpenter luridness and less Greengrass realism (OMG those annoying shaky cam scenes!) – as well as hints of Children of Men, particularly in one single-take sequence involving a pub bombing.
Demange doesn’t shy away from the violence but nor does he shy from the effects of doing violence to others. This is a film about the perpetrators of pain, briefly exploring the theme of culpability. Hook is just a grunt, put in a situation where he must kill or be killed. Can he be held responsible for what he must do next? Embodying this anguish, it’s another very strong performance from O’Connell. ’71, Starred Up, and Unbroken should cement him as the new British face of brutal cinema.
I’m not sure ’71 is a film to be taken totally seriously – indeed, it never quite resolves its dual identity as a chase-’em-up and an issue movie – but Yann Demange is a serious new talent to watch.
’71 gets a 7.2/10.