A disarmingly effective blend of “a night on the run” thriller and historical/political drama, ’71 is one of those rare movies that catches viewers almost completely off-guard and leaves the rattled to the core.
Writer Gregory Burke and director Yann Demange, both television veterans making their feature film debut, stick with the notion that less is more and wring considerable tension, from a simple set-up.
Jack O’Connell (Unbroken) stars as Private Gary Hook, an ersatz single father to his much younger brother and a British soldier stationed in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1971 — the year when the bitter hostilities between the Catholic IRA and the Protestant UVF erupted into brutal violence that fell just short of open warfare. Pvt. Hook’s unit is ostensibly there to keep the peace, a mission his well-meaning commanding officer (Sam Reid) approaches earnestly to the point of sending his men into the thick of it without riot gear.
The city is a pressure cooker of tensions, not just between the IRA and the Loyalists, but also the IRA and their more hot-tempered, violent, and younger counterparts in the Provisional Irish Republican Army splinter group. A sweep for illegal guns in a nearby neighborhood quickly goes to hell thanks to police brutality, leading to a riot that culminates with the murder of a wounded British by the Provos and an disarmed Hook being separated from his unit and forced to spend the night running for his life.
Hook’s situation creates a ripple effect on an already shaky status quo. The Provos are determined to shoot him on sight, a decision that infuriates the local IRA leader, Boyle (David Wilmot). Paradoxically, Boyle is in bed with the Military Reaction Force, a group of plainclothes soldiers led by Captain Browning (Sean Harris) who are involved in some questionable and extralegal counterinsurgency activities. All three factions want Hook dead for different reasons; Hook only knows that he has to navigate a no-man’s land of Catholic and Protestant enmity in order to survive the night.
O’Connell was a high point in the otherwise tepid and by-the-numbers Unbroken, and he really shines in this gritty drama. He projects a mix of wild-eyed fear and determination that is almost palpable, and he keeps us invested in the story even when the camera is off him and the subplots start to feel like tangents.
Fair warning: ’71 isn’t the movie to look to for an in-depth examination of a conflict that almost rivals the Spanish Civil War in terms of factional complexity. The premise doesn’t really allow for that anyway. However, Demange and Burke successfully plumb the height of the tensions and depths of the hatreds that defined the Troubles, pinging between parties who want each other dead as much as they do Hook — even when they’re supposed to be allies. “These are the front lines, boys,” Hook is told early. “Catholics and Protestants living side by side, at each other’s throats.” When the young soldier’s long, dark night of the soul is over, the heart of the conflict is no clearer to him or us, but its terrible toll is obvious.