Director: Yann Demange
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Sam Reid, Sean Harris
Synopsis: A young and disoriented British soldier is accidentally abandoned by his unit following a riot on the deadly streets of Belfast in 1971.
In the 1970s and 80s, Northern Ireland was probably one of the most dangerous places in the world because of the conflict between the provisional IRA and the British government, and between pro-British protestants and anti-British Catholics. The crumbling streets of Belfast were a maze of terraced houses and narrow alleyways in which stolen guns were passed and the next generation was raised to hate the British soldiers who patrolled their streets. In 1971, ‘the troubles’ (a quaint term for a brutal era) were really starting to gather pace, and agitation on the streets required the deployment of inexperienced – and sometimes ill-equipped – soldiers led by officers with little knowledge of how best to fight a native population instead of an enemy soldier. It’s into this violent melting pot that young squaddie Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell – 300: Rise of an Empire) is thrown. And when he is separated from his unit during a riot provoked by a search for illegal weapons, Hook finds himself lost and alone deep in IRA territory with no idea of where to go or to whom he can turn…
Debut director Yanne Demange does a remarkable job of ramping up the tension in the early scenes as his camera jostles with protestors summonsed by their wives and mothers’ ritual banging of dustbin lids on the pavements. Their angry bravado is fuelled by the obvious inexperience of the line of recruits assigned to hold them back, and the protest quickly gets out of hand, escalating into a near-riot that culminates in the execution of one soldier followed by a dizzying pursuit of Hook through alleyways and houses by a pair of gunman. But no movie can maintain that kind of momentum, and while the earlier scenes of Hook’s frightened negotiation of streets which may harbour saviours or killers maintain a certain tension, the plot loses focus a little when he finds refuge in the flat of a former doctor and his daughter, and the story turns its attention to the political motivations behind the hunt for the fugitive by both the British army and the IRA.
The symbolism of Hook’s plight becomes apparent at this point, as Gregory Burke’s acidic screenplay exposes the contempt in which the undercover operatives of the British Army hold uniformed officers constrained by strictly imposed regulations. Led by the hands-on officer Captain Sandy Browning (Sean Harris – 24 Hour Party People, A Lonely Place to Die), a character of near-Machiavellian archness, they trade with both the IRA and the Protestants until it becomes impossible to gauge exactly what their motivation is. Hook, and every other soldier like him, means nothing to Browning; the side on which Hook is fighting is unimportant – only the potential damage he might do to Browning’s operations matters.
At least Burke’s view of the IRA is no less jaundiced. Clearly in a state of flux, the more measured approach of the old guard, represented by the middle-aged Boyle (David Wilmot), is met with ill-disguised impatience by a new breed of violent activist, opportunistic gunmen who see murdering British soldiers as the only means of getting what they want. We’re left in no doubt that these are young men for whom violence will always be a way of life, even after the conflict is resolved.
Like all good message movies, ’71 encapsulates its message in an absorbing thriller that can be enjoyed in its own right. O’Connell, a rising star of British cinema, makes a sympathetic figure of Hook for whom the long night is a journey of enlightenment of the darkest kind. He’s an irrevocably damaged man by the end of it, but one with hope for the future. The same can’t be said of Browning and his kind, and the film’s deliberate loose ends send out a dispiriting message that nothing changes, even when change is clearly imperative.
(Reviewed 18th August 2015)