A return to the violence and confusion of the Northern Ireland conflict
In ’71, a young British soldier named Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) gets stranded behind rebel lines on his first day of duty in Northern Ireland. He flees, as best he can, in the general direction of his army encampment, but soon finds himself more or less at the mercy of the local population.
Out of necessity, the frenzied escape morphs into a labyrinthian navigation of the locals’ convolutedly mixed sympathies. And that labyrinth is made even more perilous by the various intrusions of British undercover agents who seem to have their own separate agendas.
As the title suggests, the year is 1971, a particularly bloody one for sectarian violence in Belfast during the so-called Troubles. The film takes us inside the conflict, with the tough, good-natured Gary, the film’s presiding point-of-view character, as our unwitting guide.
First-time director Yann Demange and screenwriter Gregory Burke present this as an offbeat kind of political thriller. There’s no mistaking the political and historical elements of this tale, but ’71 does not favor one side or the other in the conflict it portrays. Instead, via the emerging perspective of Gary, the entire conflict amounts to little more than culturally empowered gang warfare.
As a result, ’71 is more film noir than political drama. In a crucial sense, it is a crime film set in a run-down city, with the general population doing whatever it can to stay out of the line of fire. Armed men in civilian clothing are more dangerous and pervasive than any men in uniform. Soldiers are more target than threat.
Burke’s script creates some of its starkest ironies through characters who are preteen boys. Some are already itching for violent combat. One seems to have the makings of a born leader, but to what ends is not known. Another, Gary’s little brother, might have some real hope for a completely separate kind of peace .