Belfast 1971. It’s the height of the Northern Ireland conflict. But first, a little background for those unaware. The political war ran from 1968–1998. There’s the Loyalists, mostly Protestants, who want Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom. Then there’s the Nationalists, a Catholic minority, who want to leave the UK and join a united Ireland. ’71 involves a particularly volatile area on Divis Street where the two warring communities live side by side. British solider Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is dropped into the middle of the combat to keep the peace. I suppose if you’re from the UK this conflict needs no introduction, but for the majority of viewers, the lack of info will be a bit confusing. I suppose it’s fitting that we aren’t given any backstory as to what is going on here. Our hero is rerouted from Germany and sent with little knowledge as to what he’s truly getting himself into.
What ‘71 has going for it is tense excitement. The story concerns when Gary becomes separated from his unit during a riot and needs to find his way back. It is an intense journey that is interesting because we desperately hope our young soldier can stay alive. French-born director Yann Demange fashions a tale with stunning immediacy. Shot in part with hand-held cameras, ‘71 has an almost documentary like approach. The style has led some to make comparisons to director Paul Greengrass whose Bloody Sunday (2002) covered a similar topic. It’s not always clear who is on what side in ‘71. Even the Catholic Nationalists have their own internal quarrels with the IRA. It doesn’t help that there are two(?) double agents and they look alike right down to their facial hair. Their shifting loyalties fluctuate throughout the film. An offhand remark by one at the end still leaves one guy’s loyalty in doubt even after the movie ends. In fact both groups of fighting ethnic factions look remarkably similar.
The funny thing is, despite the lack of information, the details are not really important in ‘71. True, the absence of sense prevents those intimately familiar with the situation to totally comprehend what’s going on. The script doesn’t benefit from a coherent distillation of history. However the story succeeds as a tension filled, entertaining film. It’s the dramatic urgency that compels us to watch. With the hazy specifics, we make connections between this and other conflicts. I thought of the Iraq War. You might make other associations. The takeaway is that this is about a man on the run. He simply wants to navigate the streets and alleyways just to make it back to his barracks alive. Viewed from that perspective, this is an extremely exciting, well made thriller.