Director: Yann Demange
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Corey McKinley, Sam Reid, Sean Harris, David Wilmot, Killian Scott
The power of film lies 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 there Hook is caught up in a violent street riot sparked by an aggressive police search in a Catholic area. 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 lines, and who is the enemy?
The Troubles in Ireland divided the 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.
The majority of ’71 takes place in a single night, making for a very immediate, sensory experience. Jack O’Connell, a young actor very much on the rise, 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 Liverpool standing in for Belfast, Demange effectively uses music and camera to turn a familiar urban setting into and 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 for the army who are focused on 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 in this film, and differentiates it 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. We see how kids get indoctrinated with these conflicts, well before they are mature enough to understand the basis of them, ensuring 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.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen ’71? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.