“Join the army, travel the world, meet interesting people and kill them,” reads an anti-war slogan. Or how about, join the army, get deployed in your own country, meet desperate and angry citizens and spend your time running as they try to kill you?
This is what happens in ’71, when Jack O’Connell’s fresh recruit is posted to Northern Ireland with his regiment. He was promised Berlin, but he got Belfast. Although very well trained, nothing has prepared him for this assignment, dispatched to Hell on Earth.
Long before the threat of Islamic Extremists, the UK was at war with its own homegrown terrorist/resistance organisation, the IRA (Irish Republican Army). The dispute was over the sovereignty of Northern Island, but it also had religion at its core – surprise, surprise! It was Catholics vs. Protestants, and the struggle was brutal, with bombs being a weapon of choice. Belfast was the epicenter, with both groups living side by side, just a road to divide them, and the British Army trying to maintain a semblance of peace.
The year is 1971. Enter Private Gary Hook (O’Connell) and his regiment, whose first mission on arriving green in this war zone is to back up a police-arrest of some IRA suspects. No training taught them what to do in this situation. The women folk of this terrace community are in the streets, banging metal trashcan lids on the ground, creating a cacophony that warns the rest that the authorities have arrived. The sound is deafening and unnerving. The tension is high. The police power through their arrests with brutal efficiency, bashing and threatening all within their reach. This is the Ulster Constabulary; their reputation for cruelty and force precedes them.
The regiment tries to hold back the gathering crowd of angry residents. Women, kids and menfolk all screaming vitriolic hatred as emotion escalates. People are shouting, spitting, punches are thrown, chaos builds. A sudden and shocking execution leads to a stunned and blood-splattered Hook taking his cue and running for his life. Welcome to Belfast. Welcome, to ’71.
The film now changes gear from the tension of the riot to a fast paced, elongated chase scene. All on foot, through the back laneways of Belfast, over walls, round corners and across streets, Private Hook dodges countless bullets as two young Provisional IRA members try to hunt him down. As he finds refuge in a back-lane outhouse, the metaphor is clear, this situation is ‘shithouse’.
Thus begins ’71, a thrilling and tight historical feature debut by director Yann Demange that portrays a soldier’s desperate fight for survival in a hostile urban jungle. The 100-minute running time packs in the tension and action, both bolstered by the film’s many stellar performances.
Jack O’Connell’s portrayal of Private Gary Hook is flawless. Although his character has very little dialogue, we are with him on his fight for survival, every stressful step of the way.
This may be Demange’s first feature, but he has come to Gregory Burke’s tightly written screenplay with a wealth of television drama experience. Though never a guarantee that this translates well into film, in this case you can see the deft handling of the tension and suspense that reveals someone very confident in their craft and who has a handle on performance. It is no surprise that ’71 received 9 nominations at the 2014 British Independent Film Awards, including Best Director.
’71 is not just a period piece, though it portrays Belfast during ‘The Troubles” and realistically sets up its world, and its civil war setting is not just for action and thrills (which it has in abundance), this is a commentary on the politics of war, the contradiction of the army and the skullduggery of conflict. The vehicle for telling this tale is an innocent thrown into the deep end, who cops it all through no fault of his own, who should be dead, and who tries to come out the other end where there are no winners.
Whilst stitching bomb-blast wounds, a catholic ex-military medic sums up the military as “Posh c**ts, telling thick c**ts to kill poor c**ts.” No conflict is simple, with clear villains and heroes. Did we really learn anything back in 1971?
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10