The Troubles between the Protestant Unionists/Loyalists and the Catholic Nationalists/Separatists in Northern Ireland 40-odd years ago forms the backdrop in this taut thriller from director Yann Demange.
It’s 1971 and Gary Hook is a young British soldier who thinks he will head off to Germany with his unit once they complete their basic training. However, the violence in Northern Ireland has suddenly escalated and they are deployed to Belfast instead. On his first mission there, Hook is accidentally abandoned by his unit following a terrifying riot in the Catholic section of the city that sees one of his comrades brutally executed just inches away from him. On the run from the IRA militia who want him dead, he must use his wits to survive the night alone and safely find his way back to the Protestant side of town. But it’s not just the physical landscape that is unfamiliar to Hook. So is the political landscape. Who are his friends and who are his enemies? Allegiances seem to be completely fluid as protagonists on both sides jockey for advantage.
Strangely, this storyline reminds me of the dark comedy from 1985, AFTER HOURS, which is about a guy who gets stuck in Manhattan overnight and has to overcome challenge after challenge to make it through the night. Of course, ’71 is not a comedy (far from it!) but the nightmarish aspect is very similar. Each time it appears that Hook is going to be safe, the story takes another twist that throws his life back in danger.
The film stars 24-year-old Jack O’Connell, who most recently starred in Angelina Jolie’s film, UNBROKEN. In ’71, O’Connell doesn’t say much but Demange (whose prior experience has been in directing various British TV series) does an exceptional job pulling a wealth of emotion from the young actor as he desperately struggles to find safe haven. There are no “good Irish” or “bad Irish” in ’71. A Catholic good Samaritan risks both his life and that of his daughter when he takes the injured and exhausted Hook home. However, once he sews up Hook’s wounds, he turns him over to the IRA. Similarly, one of the IRA leaders informs the British army’s undercover unit that Hook is alive in exchange for their promise that they will kill a leader of a rival IRA faction once Hook or Hook’s body is returned to them. If there are “bad” people in this film, it’s the British army who are all too eager to whitewash the whole matter when it’s over.
It is interesting that the film is set in 1971 Ireland. Could it also work in 1991 Chechnya or in recent day Iraq? Certainly, the parallels are there but would the Chechens or the Iraqis behave as the Irish did — both against the occupying force and against each other? Something to think about.
Not all is perfect with ’71. A revelation early on in the film leads to a decision later on that, when it happens, is all too obvious. Similarly, at the end of the film, a character’s decision to throw his dog tags into the Irish Sea seems rather trite. On the other hand, the film’s big surprise comes from 9-year-old actor Corey McKinley who plays a tough-as-nails, foul-mouthed, Loyalist supporter. I mentioned a few weeks ago in my review of SPY about how that film throws the “F” word around with utter abandon. In ’71, this young lad uses the “F” word multiple times in each sentence yet it works with him. It’s realistic and completely believable.
’71 is a solid film that will hold you in its grip for its whole 99 minutes. Given that it is directed by and stars people so relatively inexperienced, that’s saying a lot.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 34:30.)
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