starring Jack O'Connell, Paul Anderson, Richard Dormer, Sean Harris
screenplay by Gregory Burke
directed by Yann Demange
by Walter Chaw I'm old and stupid enough to have contextualized the "Troubles," the armed conflict in Northern Ireland between the Catholics and Protestants, the IRA and the Brits, into a few U2 songs and that Paul Greengrass movie named after the same incident as...um, that one U2 song. I believed it was a tense period marked by a few unpleasant incidents. Yann Demange's debut feature '71 has shown me exactly how ignorant I've been of recent history, with a film he himself describes as an excoriation of our propensity, across nations and time, for sending our young men off to fight "dirty" wars. It's absolutely harrowing, and it provides no respite to its tension. The best type of history, it's alive and vital, thought-provoking and utterly, dispiritingly familiar. It reminded me a lot of Gallipoli; and as with Gallipoli, I feel like '71 will be the moment a young actor (Jack O'Connell this time) becomes a star. It's brilliantly shot, smart, and brutal. I went in it not knowing a thing about the film or what it portrayed and left a true believer.
O'Connell is Private Hook, a new enlistee in her majesty's army assigned to Belfast as part of a pacification unit meant to protect the local constabulary in their daily harassment of suspected IRA cells. On his first deployment, under the leadership of a green commander, everything goes wrong and Hook finds himself alone, hunted, the only simply-motivated character in a film made up entirely of chases, conspiracies, and double-crosses. He's our portal into '71--the tormented guide, he finds safe harbour for a time both on his own and through the kindness of others, while all around him the world falls down.
'71 is an exceptional portrait of urban warfare--the best of its kind since the unbroken, third-act take in Children of Men. The riot that opens the picture is nightmarish and surreal, and it never gets more comfortable. It begins with the throwing of filth and escalates in the most peculiar, terrifying way possible with all the women in the neighbourhood rhythmically pounding trashcan lids on the ground. I've never seen anything like it, really. Ultimately, Demange's film works like it does not for its novelty but for the novelty of its presentation. Its pace is breakneck, its politics are appropriately muddy, and its villains are unique and plentiful. The movie allows for ambiguity in nearly all of the characters, and opens and closes with bookends of a sort that remind of the odd, confused, coming-out-of-a-bad-dream feeling of Casualties of War's framing story. A formidable debut for TV/commercial director Demange, '71 is an honourable, horrific document of the "Troubles" as well as any conflict that involves the innocents standing by and the innocents enlisted alike.