Gary Hook (Jack O’Connel) is a young recruit in the army. His platoon are sent into Belfast to help with the Troubles. During a raid on a house, where the army are there to protect the police, a riot ensues. Gary becomes separated from the rest of his platoon and has to try and find his way home, or at the very least, survive the night.
Yann Demange, whose previous directing credits include episodes of Dead Set and Top Boy, moves to feature film making with this searing and brutal debut. Tackling the dark history of the United Kingdom, ’71 shows the brutal realities of the Irish Troubles, with a sharp eye but without moralising or politicising. Seen in all angles, from the Protestant and the Catholic and the old and shockingly young, the film gives you enough of a grip on the history to draw you in but doesn’t necessarily give you a whole picture as to why it’s all going on.
Not having been born during the times of the Irish Troubles, a term that seems so quant in comparison to the violence that actually occurred, I have only a fairly limited knowledge of what happened and what the state of Northern Ireland was at the time. It is such a shock to see the streets of Belfast presented as they are in ’71 with wrecked streets, homemade barricades blocking roads and burning cars and buses. The streets look like they have been pulled from the war torn Middle East or the streets of a fictional dystopia, about to fall in to complete collapse. Demange shoots with a v?rit? style giving the action a documentary feel. During the opening riot and chase, the camera gets stuck right in to the action giving a palpable sense of claustrophobia and the potential for violence to explode, which of course it does, and it creates a terrifying scene as the action spirals out of control in front of the young soldiers’, and the audience’s, eyes. The ensuing chase is also shot on this handheld style, conveying the desperation and speed of it but it does end up descending into too much ‘shaking cam’ at the end, losing some of the coherence. It has the influence of the Bourne films and is not one for the motion sick. However, after this the film gains control again, keeping the documentary style but also making everything easy to follow. At times the setting can feel almost dreamlike, though perhaps nightmarish would be a better word, as Hook wanders the darkened streets, battered by rain and enveloped by smoke, trying to find a way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth of unfamiliar streets.
There is no simple distinction of good guys and bad guys in ‘71, there are only different shades of bad guy. The I.R.A are killing people, the Protestant side are killing and bombing the I.R.A, the undercover section of the army are helping them kill each other and will kill to cover their backs, the police are raiding the houses of innocent people and beating the occupants, and the British army are protecting the latter two and helping them continue. They are all fighting a dirty war that doesn’t seem to have a happy ending. As such, everyone comes out of the film grubby, fighting for what they believe or what they are told to do, innocent and terrified people getting caught in the middle. The film does not come down on one side or another, it just gives you Gary Hook to root for, to hope that he comes out of it unscathed, Jack O’Connel’s strong performance really conveying his sense of helplessness and fear, a young man stuck behind dangerous and volatile enemy lines. It is also not a film that glamorises violence, it does not relish it. The violence in the film is stark, brutal and shocking, an explosion that shakes you to the core, literally at one point, really hitting on the disbelief that things like this actually did happen.
Yann Demnage has created a fine first feature with a strong performance from rising star O’Connel. Brutal, unflinching, terrifying, disturbing and shocking, ’71 is British filmmaking at its finest.