’71

(MA15+) Starring: Jack O’Connell, Corey McKinley, Sam Reid, Sean Harris

 The power of film often can lie in its ability to put you in a moment, in someone’s shoes. To make you see what they see and feel what they feel. With his impressive debut feature ’71, director Yann Demange puts us in the shoes of a young, terrified British soldier, isolated in conflict-torn Belfast.

After completing his basic training, raw recruit Gary Hook (Unbroken’s Jack O’Connell) is both relieved and disappointed to discover his first deployment is to be a peacekeeping mission in Belfast: “Not even leaving the country.” His reaction shows just how unprepared he is for what he will find there. On his first day, Hook is caught up in a violent street riot sparked by an aggressive police search in a Catholic area of Belfast. He becomes separated from his colleagues after they are forced to retreat. Lost and disoriented “behind enemy lines”, he has to find his own way back to safety. But,in this particular conflict, where are the battle lines? Who exactly is the enemy?

“The Troubles” in Ireland divided that nation on religious grounds: the Protestant Loyalists and the Catholic Nationalists. Religiously, our protagonist Hook identifies as neither. ’71 gives you enough historical detail to get by but offers no weighing of ideologies, no taking of sides. This is not a history lesson about the ins and outs of the Irish conflict, but a story of universal relevance about the intimate horrors of warfare.  The majority of ’71 takes place in a single night, making for a very immediate, sensory experience.

O’Connell is a young actor very much on the rise, and gives an emotional but largely silent performance as Hook. Through his eyes, we experience the brutality, terror and confusion of this conflict. We see the frightening ease and speed with which violent situations escalate. With locations in Liverpool standing in on-screen for Belfast, Demange effectively uses camerawork (and music) to turn a familiar urban setting into a claustrophobic, menacing hellscape.

Adding to this menacing environment is the mess of factions we encounter. Older and younger heads butt over the best means to achieve their ends. We meet Captain Browning (Sean Harris), who leads a team of undercover insurgents focused upon playing off these different factions against each other. Everyone is double-crossing everyone else, and Hook is left not knowing who he can trust.

One element that stands out, and differentiates ’71 from other war movies, is that there are children everywhere. The first person to offer Hook help is a foul-mouthed nine-year-old (Corey McKinley) who seems to be strangely influential in the Protestant militia. These children aren’t just present, they are involved. They are at the demonstrations. They are roaming the streets. Watching, we understand how kids get indoctrinated within these conflicts, well before they are mature enough to understand the basis of them. And how this, in turn, ensures that division and prejudice goes on for generations.

’71 is more concerned with atmosphere than narrative detail, but the result is a white-knuckle film of relentless intensity which successfully captures the terror of war.

Duncan McLean

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