Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is a newly recruited British soldier from Derbyshire who has to leave behind his orphaned younger brother after being deployed along with his regiment to Belfast at the height of the violence (In 1971, obviously). The first day after he arrives the troops are briefed about the geographic danger zones in the republican West of the city, especially around the notorious “IRA stronghold” of Divis Street council flats, and of the splintering factions between old IRA and the new, younger Provisional IRA.
On his first morning in the city they have to go door-to-door in a Catholic neighbourhood in order to find some illegal weapons, where they come up against strong resistance from the locals. This quickly gets out of hand leading to a shocking moment of violence that separates Gary from the rest of the regiment. After running away from some young men who are trying to kill him (filmed with an amazing Point-Break style chase scene through the backstreets), he is alone and terrified and has to steal some civilian clothes to make it back to the barracks.
After bumping into a young kid who has powerful family connections, Gary is drawn into a series of escalating violent betrayals as the night progresses between the older and younger elements of the IRA, the undercover military and the rest of his regiment…
It astonishes how confidently Jack O’Connell is creating a name for himself as a serious young actor. Both this and Starred Up have incredibly emotional, yet restrained, performances. In Starred Up he plays a young angry and violent young offender who is moved early to an adult prison in order to contain him, and in ’71 he plays a rightly terrified soldier way out of his depth in an impossible situation. Both require an amazing ability to portray vulnerability in incredibly violent and chaotic envirnoments.
The script is almost perfectly paced with very little excess, and even in slower scenes with little dialogue, there is an amazing attention to detail and atmosphere. What is so disturbing about the film, is the focus on the men, women and children that were caught up in the violence – a major theme being how young children and teenagers are forced to confront the same violence as adults on a daily basis.
The apparent futility of the violence is highlighted in two brilliant moments that both made me laugh: firstly when Gary admits to his new young acquaintance that he doesn’t know whether he is a Catholic or Protestant, the difference means nothing to him. Another similar moment occurs when a young Catholic woman asks him where he is from: his reply of Derbyshire prompts her to reply that she has friends in Nottingham, which leads Gary to smirk and reply that Nottingham and Derby don’t get on – when she asks why, he admits that he doesn’t really know… These arbitrary rivalries (and obviously I understand that they didn’t feel arbitrary at the time, far from it) are made even more tenuous as the story moves forward and peoples allegiances change in the face of extenuating circumstances.
The tension that is created throughout the film is relentless, is created with an incredible patience and seems to lack a lot of the clichés that I began to fear might enter the story in the hands of a mainstream director. This is definitely helped by the unyielding orchestral/electronic score from Belfast native David Holmes
What is most amazing though, is that this is the directorial feature debut from Yann Demange – and neither the filmmaker nor the cinematographer Tat Radcliffe has a Wikipedia page (at time of writing, of course). This level of tension from first timers simply puts other action directors to shame… Depending on what your own experience of The Troubles was (a deeply cynical name for such a tragic period), you either will watch this film and hope to never have to experience it again, or (like me) will watch this film and want to find out more about such a heartbreaking period in local history.