Director: Yann Demange
Starring: Jack O’ Connell, Sean Harris, Paul Anderson, David Wilmot
’71 tells the story of a young British soldier, who is abandoned by his unit after their initial mission in Northern Ireland quickly turns into a disaster. What follows is a tense and claustrophobic game of cat and mouse with the local paramilitary gangs.
From the first act, the film paints a picture of an environment where there is no definite “good guy” or “bad guy”- just shades of grey, and you get the impression that the protagonist, Gary Hook (Jack O’ Connell), is thrown into the middle of a situation that he doesn’t fully understand. As a result of this, Hook is mostly a pinball protagonist (Thanks, TvTropes!); a reactionary element to the stimuli around him, which adds to the oppressive feel of the film, and the viewer gets a constant feeling that he is never fully in control of his circumstances, but is simply trying to survive. I think “oppressive” is the key word when it comes to describing this film- while there are lulls in the action, there is never any respite from the feeling that danger could be just around the corner, and any sense of haven always feels temporary.
Unfortunately, around about halfway through the film, things really slow down, and while this leaves room for each element of the plot to set itself up (i.e. each faction preparing a game plan on how to take each other down), I found my mind begin to wander. I’m not asking for a constant barrage of gunfights and explosions, but after such a strong start, it feels like certain sections in the middle are overly long. While the drop in pace is slightly jarring, we are introduced to the supporting characters, and it becomes clear that the situation is confused (to quote the film), and much bigger than it would initially appear.
In addition to the warring factions (the Irish paramilitaries, the police, and the British army), the shady British intelligence unit are also making moves behind the scenes, and their true intentions for Hook, and the conflict as a whole, are ominous, to say the least. Those familiar with British cinema (especially “bloke films”) might recognise Sean Harris as the commander of intelligence, and as with previous roles, he plays this part with an unnerving sense of ruthlessness, and does a good job of making the viewer hate him. We also have the young loyalist boy (Corey McKinley), who highlights the fact that the conflict isn’t restricted to armies and angry men, but also children- this one in particular possesses the personality of a grizzled civil war veteran, who has seen a fair share of bar fights and won’t take any shit as a result.
The pace picks up again, when Hook finds himself in a block of flats that is, as pointed out earlier in the film, one of the most hostile places in town, and he must figure out a way to escape in one piece. Little does he know, however, that each party is beginning to converge on his position, and this is where the faecal matter really begins to hit the rotating blades. Despite my slightly negative views on the middle act, this sequence is played out incredibly well, with the atmosphere being almost tangible. I did find myself, at times, questioning why Hook never picks up a gun (a feeling I also had while watching Children of Men), but it could be rationalised by the fact that when faced with such overwhelming odds, how much help could it be? Also, from a narrative perspective, Hook using a gun would put his character at risk of going from someone who wants to get out of the situation with as little bloodshed as possible, to a psychopathic, indestructible action hero, which probably would have ruined the rhythm of the film entirely.
It’s hard to discuss the film without addressing the historical significance of the time period that it’s set in, and I think it’s handled very well. No punches are pulled here, with gritty and ugly violence occurring on a regular basis, and you get the impression that no one will come out of the situation without physical or mental scars, and there is a feeling that anyone can die at any point. At the same time, there isn’t a heavy emphasis on the politics behind what was going on, and this is probably a good thing, as it would have been difficult to do so without either seeming disrespectful, or too heavy handed.
I would recommend ’71 to anyone who is looking for a good thriller, and while the film isn’t perfect, it features some poignant scenes, and manages to be complex, without ever being confusing. However, if you are seeking a loud, Michael Bay-esque romp, I recommend you look elsewhere.