‘They don’t care about you. You are just a piece of meat to them.’
A tight, tense, action thriller where right and wrong, good and bad are not clearly defined, and as an exciting dramatic piece ’71 never shies away from discussing politics in its depiction of the troubles in Northern Ireland over forty years ago.
In 1970s England a troop of soldiers are training for deployment abroad. But they are, instead, given a mission which ensures they remain in the U.K., when they are sent to Belfast in Northern Ireland. It is a dangerous place for a young British soldier, with threats not just from the IRA but also the more militant youth wings, replete in guns and bombs. Newbie soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) says farewell to his younger brother Daniel and sails with fellow soldiers over to Northern Ireland. The situation is not what he expected. The troops are bombed by kids throwing balloons containing urine and soon become embroiled in a riot of angry citizens, behaving viciously because some of their number are being brutally interrogated by the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary), the police force. Matters take a turn for the worse when a soldier’s firearm is snatched by a local child. Gary and fellow newbie Thommo (Jack Lowden) pursue the kid, but it is a trap and the two soldiers are set upon by an angry and ferocious crowd. A member of this intimidating group draws a hand-gun and shoots Thommo in the head. Gary is forced to run away – from the killers, his dead comrade, his army unit; injured quite severely, he doesn’t really know much about his location. His unit beats a hasty retreat, leaving him behind. Wounded, scared and in ‘enemy’ territory, he must try to rejoin his fellow soldiers. But one side want to find ‘the Brit’ who has witnessed the terrorist who executed his comrade, whilst his own side seem to be split between finding him and instigating their own, potentially nefarious, agendas.
There is a moment in ’71 when youngster, Billy (Corey McKinley), who has come across the frightened soldier, asks his new found companion, private Gary Hook, ‘Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?’ to which he receives the reply, ‘I don’t know’. In many ways this utterance captures the audience’s perspective of the film. It is essentially a ‘man on the run escaping danger’ film, a thrilling, tense scenario where neither the protagonist nor the viewer knows who is friend and foe. Yes, we know that Gary Hook is part of the British army in Northern Island and that he has been briefed on the situation as he is meant to view it in geographically defined terms: Belfast in the East (mainly Protestant ‘our friends’), West (mainly Catholic ‘our enemies’) and who he is meant to be supporting, but the situation is far less easily defined. On his own side, allegedly, the MRF, an undercover group who seek to gain ground by infiltrating the IRA from within, have strong jurisdiction so that their Captain Sandy Browning (Sean Harris) is deeply disinterested in the fate of fellow soldier Private Hook, preferring to continue with their clandestine arrangements in morally questionable terms. The phrase of ‘we look after our own’ seems to hold little credence to the group, especially in the way they attempt to re-manufacture IRA Bombs to use against them, with unexpected and dramatic consequences.
Yann Demange’s feature debut after his acclaimed TV work (Top Boy) is an exciting and carefully constructed piece that, whilst being shot forty years later than the events depicted, in Sheffield, Liverpool and Blackburn, nevertheless has a very strong sense of the time and place it is set. Partly the direction aids this, with hand-held camera work creating a sense of news-like immediacy that is distinctly different to the look of more contemporary ‘straight to video’ or ‘straight to mobile phone’ aesthetics. This contrasts with daytime shots that use 16mm film and add a helpfully cinematic grain, again helping place the time and feel of the mise-en-scene. This is also a film where the feel of its setting is enhanced by the visual visceral nature of the violence in the beatings, shootings and explosions, coupled with the injured Gary’s wounds and attempts to fix them ‘on the streets’, when he finds himself aided (or is he?) by strangers.
An awful situation with brutal consequences results in a well crafted thriller that goes far deeper than applauding or condemning either side and instead places at its centre an injured, frightened man, trained to kill, on the run to save his own life.