This movie tells the story of a young British soldier accidentally separated from his squad and forced to try and find his way back to barracks. First time director Yann Demange manages to capture a certain moment in the earlier years of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland and Belfast in particular.
A friend of mine asked what all the fuss was about with “Twelve Years a Slave” in America, I mentioned the historical nerves that it touched and mentioned how we tend to look at works about Northern Ireland in a similar fashion, with a very critical eye. This is true for “’71” also, would it be an overly simplified piece of almost offensive rubbish, or be able to stand on its own. It did, it worked.
That said, could this movie have been made 10 or 15 years ago, possibly not. Wounds, if they can, need time to recover. This movie touches on a number of the historical elements which might be overlooked by some. The movie works by deliberately not looking at the bigger picture of the politics of Northern Ireland, instead it pieces together a montage of events all linked to the young squaddie trying to get out of a situation alive.
Fresh out of training private Garry Hook, along with his squad, is posted to Belfast. We see O’Connell’s character finishing his training, say farewell to his son and ending up on a cot in a disused hall in an old school, somewhere in Belfast. We see from the time with his son that, he’s an ordinary father who loves his son and gives the impression he just wants to get on with life. The “elephant in the room” here is O’Connell’s performance in “Starred Up” (2013) where he played the part of a young offender, who because of his violent nature was starred up to the adult prison, where he fights to fit in, overcome his own flaws and even meet up with and reconcile with his inmate father. O’Connell’s character showed a potentially decent person trying to come to terms with his way of life and the inherent violence it brings. While in ’71 we see what is basically an ordinary guy dealing with immeasurable violence as well as charity.
On the first full day in Belfast the squad is tasked to provide security cover to the RUC while they raid a group of houses on a street. Prior to setting out, their equally inexperienced lieutenant (Sam Reid, Anonymous , 2011) orders Berets only, because they are trying to win the hearts and minds of the locals. The squad stand the line protecting the perimeter of the police operation, however the situation quickly descends, the platoon is overwhelmed by the crowd , a soldier is injured and in the confusion his weapon is stolen, private Hook and another are sent to retrieve the rifle but in doing so are set upon by the locals. One of the local women manages to get the gang off them, only to have a member of the provisional IRA shoot the other soldier and after a chase, fail to shoot Hook.
In the chase that follows we come across Captain sandy Browning (Sean Harris, Harry Brown, 2009) and his men. Together they make-up an undercover team working behind the scenes with both loyalist and republican terrorists. O’Connell manages to escape the young republicans who despite orders from the “Old-guard” not to kill the soldier, continue on their search for him. Meanwhile he is found by a young loyalist boy (Cory McKinley), whose father was killed and whose uncle is a serving senior loyalist volunteer. While in the pub where they are based events unfurl and set private Hook is once again on the run, this time he is rescued by republicans. Towards the end of the night we are faced with the regular and undercover army looking for Hook, and competing elements of the IRA also searching for him.
The movie works best for those who have some background knowledge of The Troubles, the dust-bin protests, the double dealing, the undercover squads, the rules and struggles with in the paramilitary groups and how the ordinary person is impacted. Two of the younger IRA volunteers Martin McCann (Killing Bono, 2011), and Barry Keoghan (Love/Hate, 2013) came to attention not least of all because of their parts which showed how people are brought in to causes and essentially be the foot-soldiers of higher-ups who are intent on keeping a distance.
There are a number of twists along the way in this movie, seen from the view of history they walk. Overall this movie captures an event and all it entails without sending any particular political judgement. If there is a judgement it is on the situation in its entirety and how ordinary people from all lives are caught up in events. Just who can be trusted? People turn against their own people for various reasons, not least their own self-protection. Overall an excellent movie which flows well and produces exactly the performances needed by all the cast. This is one of those films that will not hurt the career of anybody involved.
Rating 8/10 –