Reviewed by Michael Gray
Produced by Robin Gutch and Angus Lamont; directed by Yann Demange; screenplay by Gregory Burke; cinematography by Tat Radcliffe; production design by Chris Oddy; original music by David Holmes; edited by Chris Wyatt; costume design by Jane Petrie; starring Jack O’Connell, Richard Dormer, Sean Harris, Sam Reid, Charlie Murphy, Paul Anderson, Paul Popplewell, and Corey McKinley. Color, 99 min. A Roadside Attractions release.
Yann Demange’s white-knuckle feature debut ’71 is an urban thriller with political undertones that inverts a classic story from the pantheon of Irish-themed cinema. In Carol Reed’s 1947 drama Odd Man Out, police pursuers wound paramilitary leader Johnny McQueen (James Mason) after a botched payroll raid at a Belfast factory. McQueen falls, bleeding, from the getaway vehicle and is left behind by his comrades. Dazed and delirious, he stumbles through a maze of narrow backstreets deep in hostile territory, trying to find his way to safety as the police dragnet closes in around him.
Demange’s fugitive, by contrast, is on the side of the Establishment. He is a private in the British Army, newly arrived in Belfast from the north of England in the film’s titular year, at a time when the troubles in Northern Ireland were escalating beyond the control of the British government. The private, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell of Unbroken), is sent out with his platoon on its first patrol to a nationalist neighborhood as backup to the local police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). The intent of the RUC mission is to conduct a house-to-house search for IRA weapons. Hook’s platoon is under the command of a newly commissioned officer (Sam Reid) who, as unfamiliar with the city as his raw recruits, unwisely elects to present a friendlier face to the local populace by leading his convoy out of the barracks without riot shields or helmets. The brutality of the RUC as they beat civilians in their own living rooms to extract information about hidden arms shocks the rookie Hook and his fellow soldiers, and incites a full-scale riot on the streets by local civilians that the underequipped platoon cannot contain. When the commanding officer orders a retreat back to barracks in a hail of bricks and debris, Hook, separated from his colleagues and his rifle in the melee, is left behind and takes flight down the street, looking for a place to hide. IRA gunmen give chase, and Hook eludes them by sheer luck in the warren of brick-walled lanes that crisscross the nationalist enclave. The traumatized soldier hunkers down exhausted in a dingy outhouse until nightfall, trying to figure out how to get back to base.
Both films provide the bare minimum of detail to guide the viewer in understanding the conflict that drives their contrasting manhunt narratives—but for very different reasons. Neither the city in which the action takes place, nor the paramilitary organization to which Johnny McQueen belongs, are mentioned by name in Odd Man Out, as the strict post-WWII censorship regime that prevailed in the U.K. would likely have banned a more explicit British-made film that presented a sympathetic portrayal of an IRA man fighting for the nationalist cause to end British rule in Northern Ireland.
Demange’s film is willfully vague on context to emphasize the soldier’s hapless plight, pitched into a battle in which he has no stake, and lost in a strange city where he cannot tell friend from foe. Hook, fresh off the ferry from Liverpool, doesn’t even know at which barracks he is billeted. What he does know is that his accent and uniform immediately give away his identity, and that the facile mapping of Belfast that he has been given, of a city divided into friendly orange loyalist and hostile green republican zones, is not a legible reality on the ground. The standard-issue army training montage at the beginning of the film, showing Hook running with his comrades through English woodlands in camouflage gear and with blackened faces, is of little use to him in the backstreets of a Victorian city that looks a lot like Manchester or Liverpool, but has a significant minority in its population that regards him as both enemy invader and legitimate target of lethal violence. When the scared squaddie emerges from his hiding place onto the streets after dark, wearing a sweater stolen from a backyard clothesline by way of disguise, he has the apparent good fortune to run into a ten-year-old bigot (Corey McKinley) from the unionist side. The boy is excited to meet a real-live British soldier and promises to take him to safety—to a loyalist pub in the Shankill, as foreign and hostile an environment to Hook as the riot he had witnessed earlier.
And there his real trouble begins. He inadvertently witnesses a furtive operation in the backroom of the bar involving an undercover British army officer (a menacing Sean Harris) he had seen at the barracks earlier. Two loyalist paramilitaries under the officer’s supervision are priming a bomb with the intent of setting it off that night and blaming its civilian carnage on the IRA. Hook doesn’t fully understand what’s going on, but knows enough to get out of there and go on the run once more, this time as a target for the loyalists as well, because of what he has just seen. The bomb explodes prematurely, destroying the pub, injuring him on the way out, and killing the boy who had just rescued him. And so begins his long night of desperation, hunted by the IRA, the loyalist paramilitaries, and the army undercover unit whose covert criminal collaboration he had witnessed and might expose.
Demange’s light touch on political disquisition serves well the frenetic pace of this film, allowing him to maintain full velocity without pausing to clearly identify or accurately position the various factions, informers, and double agents that complicate Hook’s flight to safety. Yet, this ambitious action drama nonetheless skillfully folds subtle but substantive political nuances into its brisk running time. Clocking in at just under a hundred minutes, ‘71 addresses deniable collusion between British government agents (the infamous Military Reaction Force) and Ulster loyalists, internecine fissures within the IRA, and the futility of the struggle for the cannon fodder on the frontlines. Or, to paraphrase the cynical medic (Richard Dormer) who crudely stitches Hook’s wounds after the UVF bomb goes off: war is just the posh telling the thick to kill the poor…
Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 3, Summer 2015