Since ’71 is a film set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles from the perspective of a British soldier and filmed entirely in England, one could be forgiven for feeling suspicious. Either the film is going to be grossly inaccurate or it is going to be like those American Vietnam war films that focus entirely on naïve American soldiers and ignore both the destruction and carnage they wrought and the suffering of the Vietnamese people. It is a credit to the quality of Gregory Burke and Yann Demange’s work, as well as that of the cast, that ’71 avoids these pitfalls.
Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is in boot camp, having only just joined the army, when he and his unit are sent off to Belfast. After a brief lesson in the history of the conflict, Hook is brought to the Falls Road to assist the RUC during a house search. Thanks to the tactics of the RUC, a riot soon breaks out. Hook is left behind during the panicked evacuation and is soon chased by two IRA gunmen (Martin McCann and Barry Keoghan). Lost and wounded, Hook tries to stay alive in a hostile environment.
The film works primarily as a thriller, giving only a short, potted introduction to the history of the Troubles. The film’s title, referring to the year 1971, seems to be a plea for a well-read audience to take the film as a thriller only and seems consciously set prior to internment and Bloody Sunday in an effort not to annoy anyone potentially offended by the sympathetic portrait of the British army in Northern Ireland. The soldiers here are seen as decent but lost, and there is a nice moment in which they are attacked by children throwing balloons of urine at them. The greener soldiers react with laughter, clearly finding the image of such furious children outlandish. The film does offer some criticisms of the British Army, though it is the commanders and the MRF, as well as the RUC, who are shown to be the most criminal. There is a rivalry between the Provisional IRA and the Official IRA and there is a band of unidentified Loyalist terrorists, too busy with their own schemes to help Hook out.
This is all that the film offers by way of historical context and, as simplistic as it may be, it is well integrated into the film, which is essentially a nighttime thriller in the vein of Walter Hill’s The Warriors or Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 or certain moments from The Wanderers. Some of the film’s best moments are the surrealist visions of Belfast at night in the middle of a riot. Hook walks along a dark and empty street only for petrol bombs to suddenly explode and a crowd of faceless people to appear, running right for him. Essentially it is a film about a young man trapped in a hostile environment trying to stay alive, and the film’s use of the Troubles as a backdrop is respectful but also mere scenery. The film is not a ‘Troubles film’ particularly because its focus is on the human drama and on the suffering of all of those involved. By the end of the film, the ludicrousness of violence and war is the most strongly felt message, not one about the innocence of the British Army. The film does not take sides on who was right and who was wrong and is more about the hysteria and the fear and the paranoia. In this sense, the film also doubles as a good ‘Troubles film’ because, like In the Name of the Father, Bloody Sunday and Omagh, it replaces context and didacticism with a focus on the humanity and pain underneath.
Suggesting that ’71 is a humanist vision of the Troubles may be overstretching the point, but the film is remarkable, first, for being very well made, very well written and very well performed and, second, for taking a divisive issue and moulding it into a thriller that doesn’t feel exploitative and insensitive. The issue of the legacy of the Troubles has not yet been resolved in Northern Ireland, and a film like ’71 is hardly going to help much, but when the film depicts the last in its series of pointless, defeatist murders, there is little politics and little justification. Instead, there is only pain and exasperation. And that sure beats the hell out of our own attempts to deal with the Troubles (see A Belfast Story).