There is a moment early in ’71 of immense white-knuckle adrenaline so intense that you could be forgiven for crushing the armrest. Set during the heart of century-long “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, ’71 more than throws viewers into the center of the action; it barrels on top of them and beats them bloody with sticks, bricks, and other assorted urban nightmares. When the British private who is the protagonist of the movie, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), is left behind by his comrades-in-arms to deal with the local populace of a burning Belfast slum, ’71 is never better. Indeed, the entire film feels built around this one visceral kick to the gut, even if it leaves much of the rest of the film gasping for air.
While urban “peacekeeping” pacifications are a tragic staple of governance on the news everyday, be it in the farthest reaches of the world or Ferguson, there is something undeniably British about director Yann Demange’s first feature length film. Ostensibly about the affairs of a unified Great Britain, a fact that is repeated, preached, and never convincingly sold once by Hook’s superior officers throughout the movie, it is still about an English private who out of poverty is sent to Northern Ireland to help his “countrymen.” And while the Troubles are (hopefully) behind Belfast in the 21st century, in 1971, the slums feel like an alien world populated by children who would just as soon throw feces on British soldiers as accept their authority.
As a chase film, Demange intentionally disorients the audience immediately, refusing a spotlight for the era’s contemporary politics. You will not know anymore about why the English are in Ireland coming out of the theater than when you entered. Thus the fog of war surrounding the low income Hook is incredibly thick as to why he must run for his life after he is left behind by his commanding officer.
The conceit makes the movie at once universal, since the reason why one group of men would so ardently hunt another to his death is ultimately perfunctory, but it also leaves the story remote. Jack O’Connell is a promising actor who will be in another story of war torn survival with this December’s highly anticipated Unbroken, but his Gary Hook is a cipher. As a blank slate everyman for audience members to draft themselves onto, Hook’s entire life can be summed up as there is a young boy back home he wants to return to—whether it is a son, brother, cousin, or fellow orphan is unknown—and that he is being hunted by the IRA like they’re the hounds of hell. It draws the viewer into his immediate plight, but it leaves Hook surprisingly distant.
The scene where Hook is abandoned by his posh Tory lieutenant (Sam Reid) is a stunning nerve-destroyer: O’Connell rushes through the streets unsure if there is anywhere to hide from boyish gunmen tossing out bullets as if they were candy. Tat Radcliffe’s gorgeous, filmic cinematography makes this a handheld apocalypse, yet can still find later beauty in every shattered window and burning pub bomb.
But much of the rest of the movie belongs to the shady political wheelings and dealings of the folks who profit from this status quo of horror. There is the IRA diplomat named Boyle (David Wilmot) that is constantly ready to make an accord with the Crown’s authority, so long as his own is not undermined by new fanatical upstarts like Quinn (Killian Scott). And more confusing still is British Captain Sandy Browning, wonderfully played by Sean Harris, who is a commanding officer in Northern Ireland. He let’s this always be known at all times by viewers and his subjects countrymen when he walks around the streets of Belfast in his turtlenecks like it’s Steve McQueen movie.
But his interest is not in saving Hook’s life or even apprehending Quinn, who orchestrated the earlier mayhem that left one other nameless British private an obliterated corpse on a sidewalk. No, Harris’ Browning is just as likely to cut a deal with Boyle or anyone else that can keep things safely disoriented, thus leaving Hook’s survival as a minor negotiable detail of fine print for both sides of the conflict.
An anti-war film through-and-through, ’71 imagines a labyrinth of careening alliances and petty grievances that prevents a power vacuum at the expense of oppressed minorities, burning children, and an adrift hero. Privates, such as O’Connell’s Hook, are treated like the meat that they are to keep the grinder fed. Not the first such statement about war, it nevertheless has a visceral horror during the picture’s best scenes. However, the unique approach also leaves O’Connell’s strong talents somewhat hamstrung by the vast desolation that his everyman survivor must traverse.
More of a harrowing experience than a narrative, ’71 is rare cinematic glimpse into the mindless terror of its snapshot in history, and worthy of a run down the streets of its troubled visions.