A British soldier is deployed to a divided country he knows nothing about. The army is there to keep the peace but who is “friendly” and who is “hostile”, and who can he trust? This flawed but entertaining thriller could have been set during any number of wars, but this is 1971 in Belfast.
It was a defining year in what euphemistically became known as the Troubles. Internment was introduced that August, enabling mass imprisonment on suspicion and provoking widespread civil disobedience. Less than six months later the Paratroop Regiment murdered 13 unarmed protesters on Bloody Sunday.
’71 captures the simmering tension about to boil over. The film’s lead character, Hook, played by the charismatic Jack O’Connell, is on his first deployment for the British army. His unit thinks they are going to Germany but this is changed to Belfast “because of the deteriorating security situation”.
The audience is always supposed to sympathise with Hook. We learn he grew up in care, where his younger brother remains. He enjoys the teamwork of the army. When he is asked if he is Protestant or Catholic he replies, “I don’t know.”
This theme is repeated later. He is from Derby. A woman says she has family in Nottingham. He laughs, telling her people from the two counties don’t get on, but he doesn’t know why. The subtext is that communal rivalries and sectarianism just happen and both sides are equally to blame.
Most of the film’s action takes place over 24 hours. The unit is ordered to maintain security while the RUC police conduct house searches. We see the brutality of the state’s arbitrary violence and reprisals. Hook’s unit has been deployed without the correct equipment and the chaotic situation soon escalates into a riot.
A soldier is killed and the army unit withdraws, leaving Hook behind. Through the rest of the film, mostly overnight, we follow him as he tries to find his way back to barracks. The suspense is well maintained, with Hook never knowing who he can trust amid constantly changing allegiances.
The creative team behind ’71 has produced a well wrought thriller. It is director Yann Demange’s first movie. He previously made the TV gangland drama Top Boy, set on a Hackney housing estate. That was scripted by Ronan Bennett who was interned, coincidentally, in the North of Ireland in the 1970s.
Co-producer Robin Gutch’s previous film credits include Steve McQueen’s Hunger about IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.
But the film’s real sympathy is evident in writer Gregory Burke’s previous work, the acclaimed play Black Watch. Based on interviews with soldiers serving in Iraq in 2004, it explored complex emotions and was critical of politicians and officers. In ’71 he explains the British army as just “posh c**ts telling thick c**ts to kill poor c**ts”.