A young British soldier (Jack O’Connell) finds himself lost in the dangerous streets of Belfast. During a riot he is accidentally left behind by his platoon forcing him to find his own way back to the comparative safety of his barracks whilst avoiding sectarian violence.
’71 is a confident directorial debut from Yann Demange and it details the tense and bloody conflict in Ireland in the early seventies. It’s an era still in living memory for some and it tore families, neighbourhoods, and countries apart. It is a particularly rich period of time to explore in narrative cinema.
The plot is straightforward and in many ways it is reminiscent of more notable Hollywood war movies. However the similarities don’t extend much further than plot lines. Instead the story is mired in confusing loyalties and the difficulty of reconciling morality with action. People are shown as fractured and although many are part of the sectarian violence they are not portrayed as caricatures.
There are no good people in ’71. Instead it’s a film populated by characters who are just trying to survive. Survival is of course more than just the physical and the deeper questions that ’71 poses are more to do with what we have left once it’s all over. The narrative functions well to show this difficult time and our hero is a young British soldier who is lost behind enemy lines.
Treacherous Belfast streets
In this we are provided with a fish out of water narrative and the lines are increasingly blurred between the ‘occupying’ forces and the Irish dissidents. There are no political statements made throughout this film, at least not overtly, and instead the narrative focuses on one man attempting to navigate the treacherous Belfast streets.
Jack O’Connell plays Gary, an English boy from Derbyshire who is now a member of the Parachute Regiment and sent to Ireland to quell the insurgency. The army has a role in Northern Ireland to support the Royal Ulster Constabulary and to remain present but not involved. However they do of course become targets and the Constabulary are not well liked.
Gary finds Belfast to be a city torn apart with clear battle lines and muddy loyalties. His first foray out of the barracks with his unit sees them get lost and have bags of shit and piss thrown at their vehicles. It is an immediately unwelcoming sight and impacts the troops morale negatively. It is apparent that the locals don’t want them there and the soldiers objectives are never made clear.
Gary’s unit meets up with the Royal Ulster Constabulary to conduct a routine house to house search. However the violence of the police force sparks a small riot and in the ensuing chaos Gary finds himself left behind. He is alone, he has lost his weapon, and he is far from home.
Exhilarating chase sequences
One of the most exhilarating sequences in ’71 occurs at the point where Gary is left behind. Two young armed members of the IRA chase him through side streets and Gary is shot at as he tumbles through door ways and narrow streets trying to get away. This works as a good introduction to the rest of the film. Gary is never safe and he is always alone and on the run. He finds that there are very few people to trust and that the Belfast streets are remarkably dangerous for a man in a British para’s uniform.
Belfast in 1971 is the epicentre of proxy war. There is a team of plain clothed high level soldiers running informers, guns, and supplying information to paramilitary units. It’s all carefully orchestrated to maintain deniability. Gary however stumbles into the midst of this conflict too and finds that even British soldiers may not have loyalty towards him.
’71 is a film that exercises great control. It’s action packed but never at the expense of pace and it depicts the Northern Ireland conflict with care. Belfast is drawn with great deliberation and the streets are full of burning cars, riots, and the potential for conflict.
Strong supporting cast
There’s a great supporting cast too ensuring that it’s not merely O’Connell’s film. Lt Armitage (Sam Reid) is Gary’s commanding officer and perhaps his only friend in the army. Armitage however finds himself conflicted by the means employed by intelligence officer Captain Browning (Sean Harris). Browning runs a covert team and is responsible for delivering bombs and weapons to the loyalist camp. But one of the better additions to the cast is found in Richard Dormer who is recognisable as punk promoter Terri Hooley from the film Good Vibrations (2012). Dormer plays Eamon, a former British medic who finds a very wounded Gary on a Belfast street.
’71 is a visceral movie that may prove to be to close to reality for some viewers. It is a challenging narrative and although distinctly different in tone it has some similarities to Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008). Both explore the human effect of a war in a civilian population fought often not by soldiers but by family members, neighbours, and untrained sectarian groups.
The soldiers in ’71 aren’t that dissimilar to the people that they are fighting. They clearly don’t know how to respond, the early riot scene highlights this, and they are all sons, brothers, and young men. Collectively they have no stake in this fight but slowly they are drawn in too. However if they survive they do get to go home. This is a luxury that the Irish fighting in the troubles didn’t have.