I have been to Northern Ireland once that I can remember – my parents also briefly worked there when I was a baby – and that was with a group of church friends to visit one of our number who lived in the seaside village of Portstewart. Our trip coincided with England playing Germany in the World Cup. So when we passed through a neighbourhood flying numerous black, red and yellow tricolours, I assumed it was a Catholic area. I commented as much to my Northern Irish friend. She replied that no this was a Loyalist area, and that just because they hated us less than the Irish did not mean they didn’t loathe us too!
I tell this story to illustrate that Northern Ireland and its ‘Troubles’ are confusing for people from Britain under the best of circumstances. And Private Gary Hook, the central character of ’71, is most certainly not dealing with the best of circumstances. During a botched raid on an IRA safehouse he is mistakenly left behind by the rest of his company. The film then follows his agonisingly risky bid to make it back to safety through what is essentially ‘enemy territory’, as well as the machinations of paramilitaries and military intelligence which put him in even greater peril.
Watching this unfold is the tensest thing I’ve seen in a long time. I write this several hours after the film has finished and my heart rate is only now returning to normal. Director Yann Demange seems to have been watching his Kathryn Bigelow and Paul Greengrass movies and taking notes: ’71 shares many of their strengths. It is cinematic while still feeling like news footage of a real event. It economically constructs convincing and interesting characters and Jack O’Connell delivers a compelling central performance. The period details and dialogue locate you but do so subtly. The score is minimalist yet menacing. And most of all it gets the pacing just right to maximise tension.
And strangely for a film which is set 30 years ago – and even says so in the title – it feels rather contemporary. Despite being very evocative of a specific place and time, it is also quite universal. It could equally have been set in Vietnam at the same time or in Iraq in the present. In fact, it could have happened anywhere someone is engaging in nasty business of counterinsurgency.
One of the remarkable things about the film is that it heads straight for what most films avoid: the murky and convoluted politics of a real conflict. Most films would either ignore the fact that, for example, in 1971 there were actually two IRAs. Most of the rest would resort to heavy handed exposition to let us know who was in which. ’71 does neither. Instead like Private Hood we are constantly having to calculate who is an ally and who is a threat. Petrol bomb clutching would be ethnic cleansers can be a road to safety; supposed comrades in the army have nefarious plans. It’s disorientating and frightening: like fighting a guerrilla army composed of your fellow citizens must inevitably be.
Round Up: 9/10 – a smart and scary thriller