Release Date: 10th October, 2014 (UK); February 27th, 2015 (US limited)
Genre: Action; Drama; Thriller
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris, Richard Dormer, Charlie Murphy
Yann Demange’s ’71 centres on the exploits of a British Army regiment deployed in Belfast shortly after the onset of The Troubles. More precisely, it tails separated officer Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) as he roams the city’s broken pavements during one of the most volatile periods in Northern Ireland’s history. “Catholics and Protestants living side by side at each other’s throats,” is the takeaway from a brief history lesson. What follows is an all too resonant practical class.
The lesson also informs us of the Falls Road, Belfast’s very own Berlin Wall, and the flats that occupy said road — turns out these have been rented with force by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Catholic side of the conflict. Hook’s regiment is allied with the Protestant side, though working relationships do exist between less extreme members of each division. The British Army are in Belfast to alleviate homegrown conflict, apparently, but when an arms raid goes wrong Hook finds himself alone and in dire straits.
The streets look suitably war-scarred: plumes of black smoke emanating from bombed artefacts constantly pollute the air and the pavements are stained with charred rubble. At the beginning of the film, we see the squad’s intense training regime via a collection of vignettes kinetically sewn together by editor Chris Wyatt (his efforts emphasise just how gruelling the occupation is). These vignettes also promote teamwork, endurance, and the need to fulfil objectives no matter the cost. When the action kicks off, the implementation of such a tough training schedule is quickly justified — a Children of Men-esque chase sequence through decrepit buildings missing internal walls and any sense of homeliness attests to that.
Both factions are shown to be as bad as each other. Soldiers treat women and children (and men) unethically while IRA crowds attack them with bricks, and worse. An atmosphere of hatred fills the screen and the film bloodily obliges, depicting barbarous acts with gruesome consequences. Even apparent teammates struggle to get along: danger is literally around every corner, funded mostly by Provisional IRA youths who refuse to take direction from David Wilmot’s senior IRA member. There isn’t enough time to sufficiently define secondary characters, though Wilmot is effective. So too is Sean Harris, who facially muscles his way through the piece as British Army Captain Sandy Browning.
I was reminded of Lexi Alexander’s football hooligan drama Green Street throughout: pubs recalibrated as bases; untameable urban infection; youngsters shadily mentored; unruly masses bombarding boulevards. The difference is ’71 works on a more striking level because the stakes are far higher. Despite this, good also prevails on both sides. “You’re just a piece of meat to them,” says one kind-hearted stranger to Hook, referring to the latter’s army superiors. Said stranger is Eamon (Richard Dormer), a passer-by who treats Hook in his home with the help of his daughter (Charlie Murphy) despite their ideological differences. He’s right too; faceless pawns dominate both sides in a personal war fought through impersonal battles.
Corey McKinley has a short and feisty stint as a young Loyalist child, adding a dash of humour to proceedings. Jack O’Connell conveys enough humanity through his actions and speech for us to root for him, though his goodness is primarily bolstered by the evil prerogative of those around him. In focusing its efforts almost exclusively on its cat-and-mouse narrative, the film’s straightforward approach doesn’t leave much room for deep thought, though a few thematic layers are in there for those after something more extensive to chew on (shades of grey, violence breeding violence etc).
David Holmes’ pulsating score ratchets up the existing tension to an even greater level — this tension, coupled with the film’s revenge-thriller element, reflects Jeremy Saulnier’s taut indie darling Blue Ruin. And much like Blue Ruin, ’71 benefits from some assured directorial guidance. Demange flirts with psychological horror (a chilliness assisted in large part by the eerie nighttime setting), but the film is a thriller at heart and a damn good one.
It can be difficult to keep track of the various warring factions’ motives and the conclusion doesn’t offer much in the way of a relieving resolution (given the film is set at the beginning of The Troubles, this can’t really be helped). “It was a confused situation,” rings out towards the end and ’71 attests to exactly that in its presentation of an unstable Northern Ireland. The film itself is far from confused though, playing with a confident directness and winning as a result.
Images copyright (©): StudioCanal