This review was originally written as an article for The Mancunion newspaper.
Director: Yann Demange
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris, Sam Reid
Run Time: 1hr 39min
Plot: A rookie British soldier (O’Connell) is shipped with his regiment over to Belfast to help ‘pacify’ the 1971 troubles raging between the divided Catholic and Protestant communities. The shit hits the industrial wind turbine.
From the putrid acropolises of London drug dons to the rain-lashed, bomb-blasted estates of the Irish Republican Army, Top Boy producer and ’71 director Yann Demange has earned his title as the king of the council estate. Whether or not that’s a good thing is debatable, but what you’ll all agree on is that this gritty tale about the Northern Irish Troubles is the bees head, shoulders knees and toes.
‘You will not be leaving this country’… the words of Gary Hook’s regiment C.O ring in the ears like a flashbang as he and his fellow English squaddies attempt to fathom what exactly their role will be in the Northern Irish conflict between the Protestant Unionists and the Catholic Republicans. Pvt. Hook (played courageously by Skins’ Jack O’Connell) is reluctant to leave his home life behind for the danger of the rubble-strewn flats of 1971 Ulster but, still a believer in the honour of his great nation, he does his duty and crosses the Irish sea.
Upon arriving at the ostensibly neutral barracks of the British military in Belfast, Hook and the boys are introduced to the clichéd but arguably necessary army stereotypes: the inexperienced toff of a lieutenant; the truculent but warm hearted barracks master; and the hard-as-graphite-nails special ops nutjobs. Day one on the streets sees Hook’s regiment showered with urine balloons, swamped with faecal matter and, finally, endure a full blown riot from a mob of IRA sympathisers. Before he knows what’s gone on, Hook gets split from his group and is chased by native gunmen into the heart of the infamous Divis flats stronghold, a deadly ‘no-go’zone policed by IRA paramilitaries. Every turn through the crumbling streets leads Hook to an encounter that’s either life threatening, emotionally devastating or both; hearts in mouths, we follow him into the epicentre of the action as he strives to survive the night. Interestingly, the organisation of the guerilla forces is not dissimilar to the army’s; both sides pull rank on their inferiors and neither seem to see the full picture.
Demange’s distracting preoccupations for high-brow, disorienting jump cuts and repeated abuses of lens flare are minor niggles in what is an otherwise well handled display of hardscrabble cinematography from the debutant director. Without being critical of the parties on the ground, ’71 is definitely an anti-war picture and a critique of the
half-measures apathy disastrous counter-insurgency strategies adopted by parliament during The Troubles. This is solid filmmaking built around a sturdy central performance from Jack O’Connell. It tells a story that ought to be told more often, and in a way that reminds you how historically significant the Troubles were, and indeed continue to be.