’71 is a raw and dark thriller that opens a window on 1971 Belfast, a real war zone at that time. Jack O’Connell is the protagonist of ’71, the first film by the French director Yann Demange (although it’s an English production), and it’s yet another great cinematic debut (as for example this one and this one, to name two from that endless list)! We should all keep an eye on his forthcoming second film (this time a US production) that will be released in theaters on September 14th, 2018: White Boy Rick.
But let’s talk about ’71. Gary Hook (O’Connell), a young British soldier, is sent to Belfast due to the escalation of the conflict between the Irish republicans and the Ulster loyalists. Hook goes to Northern Ireland with his battalion of very young fellow soldiers. The day after their arrival they are immediately catapulted into the streets of Belfast, which at the time was the daily theater of clashes between police, army, civilians, and paramilitaries. Things go as badly as they possibly could for our protagonist: after witnessing the cold-blooded murder of one of his comrades, he finds himself wounded and disoriented running away through the hostile streets of the city.
But the soldier’s story is nothing but the excuse that Demange uses to tell us about the political and military situation of Northern Ireland in 1971. And let’s admit it: Hook is so unlucky that his story doesn’t come out as realistic, so much so that we often think: “Really? Is this ALSO happening to him?”. But this is not the point of the film, a film that is exceptionally powerful. To make a parallel, it’s a bit like Celda 211 (the 2009 film directed by Daniel Monzón): it’s true that the protagonist is unrealistically unfortunate, but the film maintains its credibility thanks to how it shows the theme of life in prison in Spain. ’71, on the other hand, remains credible thanks to its portrayal of the relations of power between the two separatist factions (the Official Irish Republican Army, IRA, and the Provisional IRA composed of impetuous young men, much more prone to violence), the pro-British paramilitaries, and the British army, with the latter clearly trying to destabilize the region rather than solve its problems.
’71 is therefore a very crude, dark film, where the dominant colors are the black of the night and of the damp alleys, and the yellow of the fire of the pyres scattered along the streets of Belfast. Hand-held camera dominates the action accompanying our protagonist looking for salvation, a quest that turns out to be extremely complicated. The soundtrack by David Holmes isn’t catchy but creates a very tense atmosphere throughout the film. And the ending is really cynical, with the high command of the British army admitting more or less explicitly the role they are playing in the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Great movie, a must-watch. And I hope that Demange will keep making good movies in the future! Ciao!