Starring Jack O'Connell and Paul Anderson
Directed by Yann Demange
"The Troubles." What a typically British euphemism for a bloody, 25 or more year conflict which saw violent sectarian paramilitary factional groups wage war over the issue of independence for Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom, and by inference, union with Eire (the Republic of Ireland). The conflict at times spread to the ROI, included bomb attacks on mainland British soil, and stretched away to Europe. Overt hostilities all but receded in the mid 1990s are are thought, ostensibly, to have been brought to an end by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The period saw British Army troops deployed in Ulster, and ultimately resulted in at least 3,500 civilian and military deaths. Tit for tat murders continue to this day. "Troubles" indeed.
Understandably, such a momentous political event in the UK's contemporary history induced a reaction from the country's artistic community, somewhat quicker off the bat and less bombastic than, say, America's cinema's response to the war in Vietnam. Of course, that involved much more devastation, but it wasn't on home soil. In the film world, some memorable pictures have been produced. I would not claim to have seen a huge number, but some standouts are in particular Paul Greengrass' "Bloody Sunday" (2002), Jim Sheridan's "In the Name of the Father" (1993), and I have a strange fondness for the Clive Owen / Andrea Riseborough / Gillian Anderson starrer "Shadow Dancer", based on ITV Political Correspondent Tom Bradby's novel. Some have missed the mark - I never really thought Neil Jordan's "The Crying Game" was any good at all. But the most heinous examples occur when the subject crosses the Pond, and with due respect to our transatlantic colonial cousins, I think they have almost uniformly missed the boat in large part. We have the ridiculously muddled politics of something like "Patriot Games" (see the Jack Ryan review below), the awful homeliness of the IRA assassin presented in the "The Devil's Own", just for a couple.
So comes a UK flick, set against that backdrop. "'71" concerns a young British soldier named Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) We first see him in a pugilistic combat with a friend, a fellow recruit, and an ensuing harsh training session. They are both deployed with their unit to Ulster on an "emergency basis". "Don't worry, you won't be leaving the country", their CO tells them (true but disingenuous). Once in Belfast, caught mistakenly in hostile territory after assisting the RUC in a house-to-house search in the Falls Road which goes bad, due to a mess up by his green, new Commander, Hook is left adrift in "Enemy Territory", Subsequently therein film depicts his attempts to survive a night in a neighbourhood of Belfast in which almost every person he meets will be keen to kill him. This starts with an absolutely thrilling footchase between Gary and some IRA hoods, through back streets, alleyway and every which way. He survives, but, hiding in an outhouse, he still needs a way back to base. The film transforms his journey not from merely something that simple, but into an almost mystical, treacherous Odyssey.
Night falls, and in the careworn streets, lit by burning cars, Gary comes across a young loyalist, cocky (and foul-mouthed) beyond belief, who leads him to a "friendly" pub, where he encounters two undercover British operatives, recognised from his base, who appear to be upto something extremely dubious, with disastrous consequences. Suddenly it seems he's witnessed something he shouldn't have, and even his own side are out to get him and everyone in sight is banging heads with each other. The air of tension, mistrust and fear on all sides is palpably realised. There isn't much heft to the plot - Gary tries to get back to base with death and danger all around - and it doesn't feel as if the film has a political point to make. Everyone knows how messy this whole situation was, and that the British forces weren't necessarily above acting nefariously. Hook seems blankly unaware of the complexity of the situation, or even what it's all about; self-preservation is his primary goal. There's a priceless, laugh-out-loud funny moment when Gary is taken in by Brigid, the daughter of Eamon, a Catholic doctor (and former Army medic). Making small talk he mentions that he's from Derbyshire, and she counters that they have cousins in Nottingham. Gary grimaces: "It's just Derby and Nottingham don't really get on." True, but in this setting it's an amusing comment.
If there were any doubts after "Starred Up" that Jack O'Connell is going to be huge, this film squarely banishes them. He's simply immense. It's an all the more remarkable performance, as he has barely ten lines of dialogue. It's a brooding, physical turn conveying elements of confusion and fear, he comes across like a wounded animal, as he cowers, kneeling beneath the barrel of a young terrorist's gun. The (largely unknown to me) supporting cast are good too, in particular Richard Dormer as the sympathetic Eamon, Sean Harris as the shady Captain Browning and Sam Reid ("Belle") as the young, out-of his depth Lieutenant Armitage. But this is Jack's film.
"'71" is high on atmosphere and tension without adopting any overt political stance. It doesn't take sides or attempt to moralise or rationalise the situation. It's just a thriller, and a taut, highly effective one at that. One is put in mind of Carol Reed's "Odd Man Out" starring James Mason as a young IRA gunman - so on the other side of the fence - in a similar situation in Belfast. What a double bill that would make with this fillm. There's almost a dreamlike quality on show here, enhanced by David Holmes's slightly off-kilter score, and striking cinematography by Tat Radcliffe (who also shot "Pride" last year). First time feature director Yann Demange brings a neutral eye to the nightmare, making "'71" on of the most interesting - certainly most memorable - British films of the last few years. Definitely worth a watch.