Like the Americans with Vietnam, British film-makers found it difficult to depict the Troubles in Northern Ireland when the conflict was at its worst. But gradually, since the ceasefires of the 1990s, and as the conflict starts to recede in our collective historical rear-view mirror, the film industry has become bolder about using the period as a context for drama.
The British-made film ’71 benefits richly from just such a sense of distance from the time it depicts. Set in the titular year, just before the Troubles came to a full, rolling boil, this superbly crafted war-zone thriller captures the confusion, bigotry and riven loyalties of the conflict in a neat, tension-filled dramatic microcosm. If we extend the parallels with Vietnam, it’s like our equivalent of Platoon, Casualties of War or Full Metal Jacket.
Young Private Gary Hook (the excellent, fast-rising star Jack O’Connell from Skins, Starred Up and the soon-to-be released Unbroken) leaves his little brother behind in a Yorkshire children’s home when he’s shipped out unexpectedly to Belfast. Within a day of arriving, his regiment is dispatched to support the RUC as they search for guns in the Catholic Falls Road area. A riot kicks off, a superbly staged confrontation with its own in-built suspense-building drum roll courtesy of the Falls Road women’s habit of banging dustbin lids on the ground to warn the locals that the soldiers are coming.
In the fray, Hook is separated from his unit and must make his way back to safety. Raising the stakes arithmetically, both sides of the sectarian divide are riven by their own warring factions who have their own reasons for finding Hook. But there are also good and bad people on both sides. Throughout we see a moral spectrum that ranges from a brave Catholic medic (Richard Dormer) and his daughter who treat Hook’s wounds and a wonderfully foul-mouthed Unionist kid (Corey McKinley) who offers to be his guide on one side, to the shadowy British operatives led by Browning (Sean Harris) on the other, who certainly don’t have their countryman’s best interests at heart.
Although the economic script by Gregory Burke (who wrote the acclaimed play Black Watch) offers a potted Troubles 101 lesson in a brisk 99 minutes, his and French-born director Yann Demange’s joint mission is not to preach politics but to deliver an extraordinarily tense adventure story. Here they succeed admirably, with a yarn that recalls John Carpenter’s Escape from New York as much as Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday.
The film-makers demonstrate immense finesse throughout, pushing up the tension and then offering calmer moments of respite, all the better to admire Tat Radcliffe’s atmospheric, desaturated cinematography and the spot-on but never overworked period flavour evoked by Chris Oddy’s production design. And then, as in real wars, there are sudden shocks, creating a phantasmagorical journey not unlike the ride up the river in Apocalypse Now, although the action stays on the streets of Belfast (or rather Liverpool which was used for location work).
It’s perhaps too soon to say if the sometimes pulpy ’71 will achieve canonical status, but it’s without doubt one of the most striking and impressive British films of the year.