Years of ceaseless tension between the Protestants and the Catholics in Ireland spawned “The Troubles”, as it was called, a name that doesn’t begin to suggest the horror of neighbor fighting neighbor in cities like Belfast, cities where an alleyway, or a courtyard between two apartment buildings served as the front lines.
Set in 1971 at the height of The Troubles, this riveting thriller follows young British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) as his squadron’s pulled out of basic training to head to Belfast as reinforcements for the troops already on the ground. He’s green and his only family back in Derbyshire is his little brother, who lives in a rather grim orphanage. Part of the Parachute Regiment, Gary and his squad at first think Belfast is going to be an easy assignment when Catholic children ambush them with water balloons.
The tension skyrockets, however, when their next encounter with the locals is exacerbated by the civilian police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who viciously assault a woman in full view of the crowd. The RUC seek information from the woman, but they’re clearly just a bunch of jackbooted thugs enjoying their brutal work as the crowd gets increasingly restive. The situation soon explodes and after a young boy breaks the line and steals a rifle, Gary and his mate Thommo (Jack Lowden) are racing through the crowd on the shouted command of their CO. “Get that bloody gun!”
The riot continues to escalate and when the two soldiers reach the thief, they’re beaten by a half-dozen Catholic youth until a woman intervenes, saying “We’ve had enough for today, damn you!” But they haven’t, and when an IRA gunman walks up and calmly kills Thommo, Gary bolts rather than be next on the list.
From that point, ’71 is a tour of Belfast with neighbor fearing neighbor, as Hook’s commanding officer Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid) tries to rescue him from behind the lines. But the furtive intelligence officer Captain Browning (Sean Harris) has other ideas on how to deal with an missing British soldier. Is he conspiring with the Provisional’s Haggerty (Martin McCann)? Is Browning loyal to the British at all?
Truth be told, at times it’s hard to tell who’s conspiring with whom at various points in the film and who is loyal to which cause at any given time in the story. Clearly Hook is a prize well worth capturing, but by whom? And what will happen to him if the IRA capture him? Or the Protestants, for that matter?
Fortunately, not all the Loyalists are so afraid of the paras that they have lost their human kindness, first as embodied by the tough young boy (Corey McKinley) who has had to grow up far faster than any child should, then later by former army doctor Eamon (Richard Dormer), who puts his own life at risk to help a battered Hook.
’71 is a tight thriller with excellent cinematography, some deft directorial touches by Yann Demange about an era where tensions between factions were at a constant, slow burn. It was only a year later that Bloody Sunday happened, the worst moment of The Troubles, when British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians during a protest march.
The criticisms I have of the film are that the dialog is occasionally incomprehensible and that because so much of the film takes place in the dark, it can be difficult to differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys. But then again, during The Troubles, it was damn difficult to figure out who were good guys and who were bad guys. Perhaps somewhat inadvertently, director Demange has delivered a tense, watchable drama about a tough period of UK history. It’s well worth watching.