The grimly gripping thriller “’71” plunges a young, inexperienced British soldier into the mayhem of 1970s Belfast.
Private Gary Hook (the up-and-coming “Unbroken” star Jack O’Connell) and his fellow fresh soldiers have little sense of The Troubles, as the North Ireland conflict was called. Given their orders to ship out from England shortly after basic training, they’re assured they’re not leaving the country. But it’s more like another world. Promptly sent onto the burning streets of Belfast in berets, not riot gear, they find themselves tossed into an urban war zone ready to boil.
At first the resistance is almost charming: Boys toss bags of urine at them. A clamor grows as women clang trash can lids on the row-house sidewalk. Soon, they’re surrounded by a screaming mob: old and young, men and women. As their ranks splinter, a soldier beside Hook is shot point-blank in the head by an IRA youngster. In the melee, Hook is left behind to survive a night on his own in a city divided between Catholics and Protestants but where battle lines are invisible to an outsider.
“’71,” directed by the French-born British filmmaker Yann Demange, is a tightly controlled cannon-ball dive into a violent history. Taking place over one night in which a disoriented Hook tries to survive an unfamiliar city and an unfamiliar conflict, “’71” is plotted like an action film but made with the moodiness of the art house.
O’Connell’s Hook doesn’t do much talking. He’s more like a hot potato dropped into a simmering war, through which we observe the yellow, bloody haze of nighttime Belfast. The script by playwright Gregory Burke strictly avoids taking any side, but rather in the tensions within all agents in the conflict.
Hook is a kind of blank slate (asked if he’s Protestant or Catholic he replies that he doesn’t know), that reminded me a little of Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” a film also about an unknowing soldier sullied by the fog of war. But while “Sniper” stayed focused on its warrior, the eyes of “’71” are outward, trained on the locals. A fine ensemble including actors like David Wilmot, Sean Harris, Sam Reid, Barry Keoghan and Martin McCann people a teeming film.
Nationalists, loyalists and British military are composed variously of honest people — mothers who take pity on the boyish soldiers, commanders who want to be peacekeepers not oppressors — and those that want violence: undercover agents, power-hungry rebels. In “’71,” the fighting is fueled by the worst elements of each party.
“We take care of our own” is an ethos frequently invoked, but almost always by those who have no genuine interest in adhering to it. It’s the note that reverberates at film’s end, too, which harkens back to an earlier scene when Hook, an orphan, visits his kid brother at a rural and unwelcoming home for children.
Though “’71” sometimes fits into its one-night concept a little too tidily, it’s an altogether smashing debut for Demange, who has worked in British TV. Shot in 16mm by day and digitally by night by cinematographer Tat Radcliffe, it viscerally and convincingly creates a gritty nocturnal odyssey in a brutal chapter of Irish history.
The young O’Connell already seems destined for stardom and rightly so. He’s tough but tender, with a fire lit behind his eyes. This plus last year’s ferocious British prison drama “Starred Up” constitute as promising a start as any actor in recent memory.
“’71,” a Roadside Attractions release, is rated R for “strong violence, disturbing images, and language throughout.” Running time: 99 minutes. Three stars out of four.
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