'71 Jack O'Connell

Yann Demange’s ’71 occupies an intriguing position in current British cinema—a rare hybrid between hard-nosed realism, on the cusp of a quasi-documentary style, and genre thriller-adventure. Set in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, at the height of the Troubles, it suggests an unlikely collaboration between the Paul Greengrass of Bloody Sunday and Walter Hill or John Carpenter in their primes. Despite these comparisons, it’s a very individual and uncompromising film—for most of its running time, at least.

Jack O’Connell, the fast-rising poster boy of young U.K. cinema, plays British soldier Gary Hook, a private from Derby posted to Northern Ireland with his regiment. He was clearly hoping for something more glamorous to escape the daily grind of English life (which was a pretty morose affair for most people in the first years of that decade). “We’re not going to Germany?” he blurts out when he’s told. His superior barks back: “Northern Ireland—United Kingdom—here. You are not leaving this country.”

Being posted to Belfast means at once imprisonment for Hook, and a sort of exile—because “here” proves to mean “here but worse,” a grim version of British streets that he could never have imagined. In effect, he’s going to hell—but ’71 makes it very clear that Northern Ireland at that time was hell above all for the people who lived there. British soldiers at least stood some chance of getting out eventually, albeit not necessarily alive. As a corporal (Babou Ceesay) says when Hook’s platoon reports for duty: “Don’t worry—you’ll only be stopping here till one of the paddies shoot you anyway.”

'71 O'Connell

The platoon’s lieutenant (Sam Reid) greets the “new boys,” shyly grinning that he’s “a bit of a new boy myself,” and it’s instantly evident that this soft-spoken toff is hopelessly out of his depth (a lovely touch is the Corporal’s muted response, a contemptuous teeth-sucking sound). The platoon is assigned to accompany the Royal Ulster Constabulary on a house-to-house search in the city’s Catholic area; the lieutenant, committed to a softly-softly approach, makes the mistake of insisting on berets rather than helmets and riot gear. The platoon get a nasty shock: it begins with boys hurling insults over a fence, then hurling piss at them. As the RUC officers storm houses, making liberal use of truncheons, the situation escalates into a riot—very dynamically staged by Demange, previously known for work on the TV show Top Boy. The soldiers retreat, but one private has been shot dead, and Hook is left behind, alone and terrified, in a hostile part of town.

The rest of the film tracks his attempts to get back to barracks alive. Written by playwright Gregory Burke—famous for Black Watch, about British soldiers in Iraq—’71 neatly belies the screenwriting myth about dramas having to be defined by active heroes pursuing a goal. This is a bracingly simple narrative about someone who does very little, says little too, and for the most part pursues the simplest possible aim—to stay alive—while being acted on from all sides by forces he can’t begin to comprehend. On one hand, there are IRA gunmen on his trail; on the other, his supposed allies in the British army regard him as expendable at best, and at worst, an inconvenience to be eliminated. No less a danger to Hook than the IRA are the members of the MRF (Military Reaction Force), an undercover unit working within the British Army, and by all accounts a brutal law unto itself (as one former MRF operative recently put in a BBC documentary: “We were there to act like a terror group.”)

Hook becomes a marked man when he blunders into a classic wrong-place-wrong-time situation, as shown in the film’s second big coup de cinéma, following the riot. Wandering the streets at night, Hook meets a young Protestant boy (Corey McKinley) who’s only too delighted to meet a real British soldier, and promises to guide him back to safety. The kid takes him to a pub, where his uncle—a prominent Loyalist militant—is upstairs involved in some business. That business involves a time bomb to be planted in the Catholic area—a bit of MRF skullduggery that Hook wasn’t meant to see. When the bomb goes off prematurely, Hook is in deeper trouble than ever. The explosion sequence is the terrifying crux of the film, a sudden eruption of eerily quiet streets into a fiery abyss. Hook staggers into the pub to save the boy—and finds him, a charred corpse with its arms torn off.

'71 Jack O'Connell

On first arriving in Belfast, Hook’s platoon is given a briefing so that they—and we—can get up to scratch on the city’s geographical divisions between the Protestants loyal to Britain and the hostile Catholics. But the briefing is prefaced by the words, “Roughly, very roughly…”—and the real state of play is indeed more complicated than that, not least because the IRA is itself divided between old-school militants and the more radical Provisional IRA. The old guard is represented here by Boyle (David Wilmot), the Provos by his sworn enemy Quinn (Killian Scott). The latter has a young lad named Sean (Barry Keoghan) in tow, an aspiring gunman who is offered a coming-of-age blooding ritual, the chance to kill his first Brit; the scene recalls a similar graduation moment among Neapolitan criminals in Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah.

To complicate matters further, Boyle is colluding with the very people you’d expect to be his arch-enemies, the MRF; they order him to “sort out” Quinn, and you can bet they mean “with extreme prejudice.” It’s giving nothing away to tell you that later on, the MRF will say exactly the same to Quinn about Boyle. Or that, when Hook’s lieutenant ineffectually protests about the MRF’s actions, it’s made clear that the British Army too has its own agenda, indifferent to cricket pitch fair play.

Compellingly, ’71 brings these tensions to life without spelling them out—and if we find it hard to follow exactly what’s happening around Hook, that’s as it should be, because it’s not so easy for him to make sense of things, either. He spends much of the film either in a pain-induced state of bewilderment, or pelting through back alleys and internally wrecked rows of terraced housing without time to look back and worry about exactly who’s on his tail. The film is edited with brisk muscularity by Chris Wyatt and shot by Tat Radcliffe, who gives the city night a toxic orange glow, sometimes fortified by rain, smoke, or fire.

'71 Jack O'Connell

There are a couple of strokes that don’t quite convince. One is the casting of Sean Harris as Browning, the MRF captain—a nasty piece of work topped by a semi-Beatle cut and sideburns. Harris is destined by his looks (think of Aki Kaurismäki’s late weasel-faced star Matti Pellonpää, only more unsavory) to play conniving, brutish characters, and it’s a calling he embraces with gusto. He’s always good, and this film is no exception—but this particular role is a little too close to the corrupt Northern cop he played in the Seventies/Eighties–set trilogy Red Riding (09), which leaves the character of Browning seeming a touch ready-made.

Here’s also a pedant’s quibble. A copy of music weekly Melody Maker provides a plausible excuse for Hook to get chatting with the daughter of the Catholic doctor who tends his wounds, but it’s unlikely that in 1971 (if the film is literally set in that year) they would have been talking about David Bowie; he didn’t mean much to a wide public until he performed “Starman” on Top of the Pops in July 1972. And I suspect that a macho lad like Hook would have had something a lot pithier to say about him than just: “He’s for girls, really.”

That’s neither here nor there: my real cavil is with the episodes which frame the film. At the start, after we see him in training, Hook visits his kid brother in the children’s home where he himself was raised; the theme is reprised in wistful mode at the end. I can see what these sequences are doing: humanizing Hook, making him more sympathetically vulnerable, and then, finally, giving his experience the proverbial closure. But seriously, do we need anything more to make us care about Hook than the very fact that he’s running for his life in a hostile war zone? Perhaps the worry was that without the opening, the film would have to work a lot harder to establish that he’s not just an army bully boy—that some emotional special pleading needed to be done for a British soldier in Northern Ireland. In fact, the framing sequences dilute ’71, making it a more conventional film than it might have been; I wished Demange had stuck to the tautness and concentration of the film’s main body, and kept us wondering if there was any world at all outside the combat zone that Hook falls. Otherwise, ’71 is a dynamically effective piece of work, and a very economical one that doesn’t have to use too much talk to bring home the point that war, as one character puts it, is a state of affairs in which “Posh cunts tell thick cunts to kill poor cunts.”