Fast-paced British thriller drops viewers into the middle of the Northern Ireland conflict for some bruising action
Directed by Yann Demange
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Sam Reid, Sean Harris
To anyone who’s seen a war movie in the last 50 years, the opening sequence of ’71 will feel very familiar: raw, young recruits being put through their punishing paces by screaming drill instructors. The recruits wallow in mud and scramble over walls while being likened to “maggots” or some other lowly creature. It is—as both the military and popular culture have taught us—how “men” are made. But there’s something different going on here, just under the surface. These young British soldiers are all uniformly tightlipped. They take their punishment with a numb resolve. The film’s soundtrack throbs away. There isn’t so much a sense of tension as a feeling of inescapability. Something bad is going to happen. And soon. So what’s got this particular group of soldiers so petrified? Are they going off to fight some bloody war halfway around the planet? Nope. They’re getting on a boat and going to Ireland.
Known commonly as “The Troubles,” the conflict in Northern Ireland between nationalist Catholics and loyalist Protestants lasted from the late ’60s all the way until the “Good Friday” agreement of 1998 (which at least put a dent in weekly bombings). Over the course of this unofficial war, more than 3,500 people were killed and an estimated 107,000 injured. Back in 1971 animosities were at their peak. In ’71 we witness what’s going on in Ireland through the eyes of Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell from “Skins” and 300: Rise of an Empire in a tough, bare-bones performance). Hook, a wet-behind-the-ears soldier, is dropped off on the streets of Belfast and thrust into a conflict as chaotic and deadly as anything in Saving Private Ryan.
Citizens are being brutalized by police. Armed soldiers march block by block, rousting troublemakers. Schoolchildren hurl bricks at authorities. Teenage ruffians prowl the city looking for blood to spill. Car husks burn on street corners. This isn’t a war zone, mind you. It’s a neighborhood. Hook’s squad is ordered to leave helmets and riot shields at their base camp—to present a less threatening presence to the locals. But almost immediately after the soldiers set foot on the sidewalks, a riot erupts.
Eschewing much in the way of background and political discourse, ’71 settles for breathless thrills, as our largely taciturn hero stumbles from one deadly encounter to the next. Bullets are dodged, fences are hurdled, and suddenly that harsh training sequence doesn’t look so out of bounds.
As things spiral quickly out of control, Hook and another soldier are accidentally left behind by their squad leader who panics and bugs out. Hook’s squadmate is immediately shot and killed in a brutal ambush. Hook does the only thing he can; he drops his gear and runs for it. This kicks off the grim, cat-and-mouse chase that is the bulk of ’71.
Eschewing much in the way of background and political discourse, ’71 settles for breathless thrills, as our largely taciturn hero stumbles from one deadly encounter to the next. Bullets are dodged, fences are hurdled, and suddenly that harsh training sequence doesn’t look so out of bounds. Trapped on the all-but-abandoned streets of Belfast at night, Hook does everything he can to survive and make his way back to the army barracks in Protestant territory.
Hook’s biggest problem is he has no idea whom to trust. There’s a gang of teenagers with handguns who clearly want him dead for witnessing the murder they just committed. And there are a handful of IRA higher-ups who would be quite happy if he just vanished. But there are plenty other ordinary citizens for whom murder (even in this emotionally unstable environment) is repellent. Who can he turn to for help? This question becomes even harder to puzzle out when it becomes evident that not even the loyalties of the British soldiers are clear. Surrounded by murderous thugs, bloodthirsty enemies and turncoat soldiers, poor Hook is on his own.
Beaten, bloody and exhausted, he collapses on the doorstep of a former Irish soldier (Richard Dormer, Mrs. Henderson Presents) and his teenage daughter (Charlie Murphy, Philomena), who take pity on the lad and nurse him back from the brink of death. But it’s only a temporary respite. Hook’s rescuers are too scared to turn him over to the British army for fear their neighbors will retaliate against them. Trapped in a tiny apartment and half dead, Hook waits for the various forces searching for him to close in for a High Noon-style showdown.
Again, ’71 isn’t terribly interested in talking politics. It doesn’t have the time to sit around and discuss things politely. Everybody here is too busy bleeding and running. If you want to know the history of why neighbors spent 30-odd years killing neighbors in Northern Ireland, you’ll have to read a book. Admittedly, this causes the film’s villainy to come off as rather one-note, and it’s sometimes hard to tell the players without a scorecard. But that doesn’t put a dent in the entertainment value. Directed and written with considerable verve by British TV vets Yann Demange and Gregory Burke, ’71 just wants to offer a visceral look at what life (and death) was like on those bombed-out, brickbat-strewn streets of Belfast a mere generation or two ago.