Set against the turbulent and violent backdrop of seventies Belfast at the height of the Troubles, ’71 tells the story of a newly-deployed British soldier separated from his unit, and his ensuing struggle to return to his barracks.
Supported by a strong cast, the relatively unknown Yann Demange bursts on to the British film scene in his directorial debut. Demange follows a long list of directors who have taken on the unenviable task of producing an honest portrayal of Northern Ireland during the darkest years of its history, such as Jim Sheridan (In The Name of The Father, 1993), Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, 2002) and Pete Travis (Omagh, 2004). Best known for playing the destructive James Cook in Channel 4 drama Skins, Jack O’Connell shines as the pensive young soldier, Gary Hook, who finds himself lost and alone in the brutal streets of Belfast.
At a time in a city when all that seemed to matter was which ‘side’ you belonged to, O’Connell portrays the survival instinct necessary to adapt to Belfast as he desperately flees from members of the Irish Republican Army. Helped in different ways by members of both the Protestant and Catholic community, Demange captures sparks of humanity in an otherwise bleak landscape where bombs and guns are all too familiar. The director’s clever use of tracking shots gives us a scarily realistic perspective of Private Hook’s frantic attempts to rejoin his unit, with the shaky, out-of-focus camerawork reflecting his fear. Music and sound is also used to great effect in ’71 as Demange slowly builds tension to an almost uncomfortable level, such as the deafening din of women banging bin lids on the pavement to signify the arrival of British soldiers.
For those not entirely familiar with the history of the Troubles, ’71 explores the complicated nature of guerrilla warfare. Changing allegiances, double-crosses and secret deadly deals demonstrate the complete absence of trust, both within the Irish Republican Army and the British Army. This is shown in the clash between the undercover Captain Brown (Sean Harris) and Lieutenant Armitage (Sam Reid) as Brown is willing to go to any lengths to defeat the IRA, while Armitage wishes to strictly abide by army protocol. The split in the IRA to the more traditional, Official IRA and the more violent, extremist Provisional IRA is illustrated in the conflict between Boyle (David Wilmot) and Quinn (Killian Scott).
The unrelenting and shocking violence of ’71 is not for the faint-hearted; it is, however, a regrettably true image of Belfast’s hostility during the Troubles. Regardless of your familiarity with this era, I would encourage people of all ages to go and see what is an important film in considering the modern history of Northern Ireland.
Director: Yann Demange
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris, Sam Reid
Genre: Historical Action
Running Time: 99 minutes
Laura Owens is a Queen’s Radio contributor and often writes for QR whilst co-hosting a mid-week show.