It represents a rare occasion when one can credibly make the claim that a strong year for British filmmaking is headed by a historical action thriller set predominantly in Belfast during the height of the troubles in the early 1970s. Yet in ‘71 we have a film for which this case could be rightly made. Director Yann Demange’s first feature is intriguing, not only for its mature tackling of a subject matter that has seldom been handled with any real honesty or objectivity, but for its weaving of a narrative that focuses on the individuals involved rather than their setting.
Debuting way back in February at the Berlin Film Festival, ‘71 features Jack O’Connell (previously a regular on Skins) as an English soldier deployed to Belfast when the conflict between Unionists and Republicans was just starting to hit its peak. Once there he finds himself separated from his unit and stranded in a warzone-like environment, despite being told beforehand that there was not much to worry about because ‘we aren’t even leaving the country’.
1970s Belfast is accurately portrayed in all the nightmarish bleakness of its time; a time when few civilians on either side were safe from the crimes committed by both adversaries involved in the conflict. This was a seemingly endless game of one-upmanship, punctuated by continual tension and distrust among those who otherwise considered themselves on the same side.
Such statements are typical of any war, yet the time known as ‘the troubles’ carries with it an especially poignant sense of tragedy to this day. Unlike other recent conflicts such as Vietnam or the World Wars, when the collective public consciousness would have no doubt they were fighting for justice on the right side (however influenced it may have been by political propaganda), the issue of Ireland still presents an uncomfortable moral and ethical dilemma for which there is no easy answer.
This was and is reflected in the perpetual compromise that is my wee country, Northern Ireland. A compromise is all it can ever be, because the truth is this: no one can really say with conviction who was right or wrong, then or now. The IRA did indeed commit atrocities and are rightly scorned even by those who would have once considered themselves their allies. While at the same time, one cannot truly regard them, like the rest of Ireland, as undeserving of some kind of sympathy. The U.K. were, after all, the original perpetrators; the party that struck first over 200 years ago when they decided to forcibly take Irish land for their own. And if the IRA showed cruelty in their stubbornness to surrender, the British army responded in kind. Objective reasoning finds difficulty in justifying either side’s methods.
In the end, it was the individuals caught up in the middle of it who suffered, regardless of personal belief or point of view. Communicating this is ‘71’s greatest strength; no scene shows it more effectively than when Gary, the soldier who finds himself at one point cornered by a group of IRA men who look no different than disgruntled civilians, has to kill one of them to escape. The brief moment they share in silence, as one lies dying, is as emotional as it is strangely illuminating. For this instant, ideologies separating the two men evaporate, as they usually tend to do when one is faced with the stark realities of death and survival.
Filmmakers can frequently fall to the temptation of using this art form only to reinforce their own beliefs about a topic, trying to present their narrative in a way that pushes the audience towards a certain point of view. While there is sometimes a place for this providing it’s done tastefully and intelligently, preferably in a way that upsets the status quo, Demange’s team deserve praise for not treating this delicate subject in that way.
There is no deeper meaning hidden within this film, no overt theme bedded in subtext or great message to be preached from its perch. ‘71 comes with no pretense other than that which it wears on its sleeve: the human heart. And on this occasion, I found that approach surprisingly refreshing.
8 / 10