“‘71” is a gripping tale of survival with a number of very intense moments which made my body tightened during my viewing. Pumped by its confident direction and fueled by its strong lead performance, the movie never loses its tight grip on the audiences once it hurls its young hero into a perilous situation in the midst of the Northern Ireland Conflict during the 1970s, and it gives us as a grim, vivid look into a turbulent era in the past which still casts a long grey shadow on Northern Ireland even at this point.
Before he is sent to Belfast along with his fellow soldiers of the British Army, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) looks as confident as expected from a young soldier during the final days of military training. The opening scene, which begins with the vibrant sounds of boxing gloves, shows him in a tough boxing match with the other trainee, and then we see him going through various training courses along with others. Not many things are told about his personal life, but there is a brief moment when he visits his young brother who is currently under foster care, and we can only guess that they grew up together without their parents.
Not long after Gary and others arrive at their barrack, they are put into their first mission in Belfast, and a short briefing on their mission gives us some basic background information on the ongoing situation in the city which is virtually turned into a war zone because of the continuing conflict between the Protestant groups and the Catholic groups. As reflected by a map shown during the briefing scene, this conflict, which is called the Troubles, divided Belfast and its people into fragments during the 1970s, and this conflict ravaged Northern Ireland for nearly 30 years until it was officially ended in 1998.
In their first mission, all Gary and others have to do is protecting the police officers who are about to go into a house in the Catholic area and arrest someone in the house, but the soldiers and their commander Lieutenant Armitage (Sam Reid) soon realize that they are in a difficult situation way over their head. Right after they arrive at the site, the news of their arrival is quickly spread around the neighbourhood through trashcan lids repeatedly hit on the pavement, and the resulting noise begins to sound more like ominous war drum as more people are gathering around the site – and they are certainly not so pleased about what is going on in their territory.
The soldiers are ordered not to provoke local people, but the protesters becomes more aggressive as the soldiers try to block and stop them, and some of them soon throw stones at the soldiers as the situation is getting more chaotic than before. The sense of urgency is palpable as the cinematographer Tat Radcliffe’s handheld camera frantically looks around police officers, soldiers, and protesters, and the sheer verisimilitude of this sequence makes us feel helpless and cornered as if we were right in the middle of the chaos along with them.
And then Gary and one of his comrades get themselves separated from others when they are ordered to retrieve a snatched rifle. After they happen to be left alone by mistake, the other soldier is shot to death by a member of local Catholic paramilitary group, and Gary must run for his life as desperately trying to evade the following pursuit. This sequence can feel quite dizzy to some of you mainly due to its shaky handheld camerawork and staccato-like editing, but it is skillfully done as generating its own rapid, pulsating rhythm to follow, and the overall result is absolutely breathtaking to say the least.
Gary manages to save himself, but he is still in a very unsafe zone, and his circumstance becomes more dangerous as the night begins. He fortunately comes across a number of people who can help him, but most people in the city is connected with one side or the other side, and the guys who chased after Gary at that time still want to kill him even though their superior does not want that happen at all.
The screenplay by Gregory Burke sometimes becomes a little more relaxed as giving some spaces to the other substantial supporting characters including Captain Sandy Browning (Sean Harris), a hard-bitten cop who looks mean and ruthless right from his first appearance. This unlikable guy, who even has more authority than Lieutenant Armitage, can pull some strings on both sides through his covert connections, so there is indeed a chance for Gary’s survival, but the situation becomes more unpredictable through several plot turns as we come to see a growing possibility that Gary may not see his little brother again.
This is the first feature film of the director Yann Demange, and he did a superlative job in transporting us to the period background of his movie. While the movie was shot in the locations in Northern England, its gray mood of socio-political unrest feels real and authentic with those rubbles and burned (or burning) vehicles on the streets, and Demange also adds a couple of stylish touches to the night scenes for emphasizing the nightmarish aspect of his hero’s plight. There is a very striking sequence in the middle of film you have to see for yourself, and this sequence almost becomes surreal as Gary wanders around the confusing aftermath of what he has just barely escaped – and we are reminded that how terrible that violent time was to many people regardless of which side they were on.
The success of the movie depends a lot on its lead actor Jack O’Connell, and he gives an electrifying physical performance to be praised along with his equally remarkable turn in “Starred Up” (2013), in which he memorably plays a young troublemaking prisoner with hair-trigger temper. He is believable here in this film as an ordinary young man struggling to survive under a very daunting circumstance which tests every fiber of his resilience, and his performance is captivating to watch especially when his character is pushed further into his grueling ordeal during the heart-stopping climax of the film. While it can be said that the movie belongs to O’Connell, Sean Harris and the other supporting performers in the film are also good in their respective roles, and they all look convincing as the people who have lived with danger in every day of their daily life.
While its view on the Northern Ireland Conflict is inherently limited, “’71” strikes us with its raw realism and suspense through its direct, focused approach instead. This is a powerful drama which deserves to be mentioned along with the other notable films about the Northern Ireland Conflict, and it also works as a taut, thrilling cinematic piece which frequently overwhelmed me with its nail-biting highlights. In the other words, I had one of the most suspenseful experiences to remember in this year.