Alone, Tired And Behind Enemy Lines In ’71
The year 1971 started off badly for the Northern Ireland city of Belfast, when the Irish Republican Army tarred and feathered several men. 3 riots broke out later that month in various neighborhoods in the city. In February, a British soldier had been killed by the IRA and two civilians were killed by British troops. That’s just the beginning of the year, and things would get far worse.
French director Yann Demange’s first film, ’71, is set at Ground Zero of the Irish Troubles. It’s a film that’s incredibly self-assured and extremely impressive. It’s also a film that never takes sides. It remains impassive, never surrendering to the cheap bloodlust found in a lesser film like American Sniper.
Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is in a training regiment with the British Army. A mostly green recruit, his regiment is sent to Belfast to assist Army units trying to maintain control within the turmoil. They arrive at a broken down street and act as crowd control while other British soldiers perform a raid on a home. During the raid, we can hear cries and shouts ring from inside. So can the locals, and they slowly gather, their anger growing. The crowd inexorably surrounds Hook’s regiment. Violence breaks out and, in the chaos, Hook and another soldier are separated. That soldier is quickly murdered by a team of IRA killers, and Hook is off, running for his life in hostile territory.
Along the way he’ll encounter a hilariously profane Loyalist kid (Corey McKinley), a retired medic (Richard Dormer) and his daughter (Charlie Murphy), and an undercover British unit led by a conniving officer (Sean Harris). All the while he’s pursued by Quinn (Killian Scott) and his team, a breakaway and more radical offshoot of the IRA.
An awful lot works in ’71, chiefly Demange’s handling of action scenes. At times the shakycam becomes a bit much, but we’re mostly dropped right into the chaos. Demange also handles the pacing with great skill, and he’s excellent when it comes to ratcheting up feelings of tension and dread. There’s an extended scene in a pub involving a bomb that’s one of the best shot and edited sequences I’ve seen in a long time. Plus, like Paul Greengrass and Kathryn Bigelow, Demange is able to present a tricky political situation in shades of gray.
Scottish playwright Gregory Burke handled the script, and handled it well. Despite it being a little too convenient that characters help Hook at just the right time, he does a solid job of humanizing the characters and their motivations. Everybody feels like they’re doing the right thing, but under the surface they’re all scared to death.
Between this and Unbroken, Jack O’Connell is becoming cinema’s new Patron Saint of Suffering. Back in the day it was a given that, if you saw a movie with Mel Gibson, he’d eventually get his face rearranged, be horribly tortured, or be on the receiving end of a good old fashioned ass kicking. Since nobody wants to see Mel Gibson in movies anymore, O’Connell has ascended to the throne. He has minimal dialogue, which is good. He doesn’t need it and is able to communicate a lot through a look.
It’s great seeing a film with ideas and a point of view. We’re on the cusp of the summer movie season, and the odds are pretty good that a little film like ’71 will get forgotten. Do me, and yourself, a favor. Don’t let that happen.