Oh, what a blessing this is. A war drama that has absolutely nothing to do with World War II. Even better, it’s a movie about the seemingly perpetual conflict between Ireland and England. That’s fertile ground for a wartime drama that — so far as I know — remains largely untapped by cinema. I just had to take a look.
The title of ’71 obviously refers to the year of 1971, which is just about the time when the Northern Ireland conflict spiraled into such an overwhelmingly bloody clusterfuck that conflict-related deaths would continue to tally up for another thirty years. Even better, the film takes place in the town of Belfast, by far the biggest meat grinder in the whole war.
This film tells the story of Pvt. Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell, whom you probably don’t remember from his star-making turn in the criminally underappreciated Starred Up), a teenager from Derbyshire freshly enlisted in the British Army. This happens just before everything in Belfast goes tits-up, so Hook and the rest of his compatriots are sent to support the troops already there. To make a long story short (too late!), Hook is separated from the rest of his platoon and he’s abandoned behind enemy lines. Without any weaponry or armor. And everyone on both sides is looking for him. Suffice to say it’s a very long night.
The movie doesn’t go into very much detail regarding the different factions of the war and why they’re fighting. I’m sure that might have been a missed opportunity to educate the audience, and there is something to be said for oversimplifying such a tremendously intricate conflict, especially when so many hundreds died as a result. But here’s the thing: This isn’t a story about the pencil-pushers, the generals, the politicians, or whoever else is conducting the war for whatever reason from a safe distance.
No, this movie is about the people in the trenches. This is about the soldiers who were sent into a battlefield with no idea of what they were even expected to die for. This is about the people who are out for vengeance in return for transgressions against their families, their freedoms, etc. This is about the honest people who are just trying to scrape by while living in a place where guns or explosives could go off at any moment. Oh, and let’s not forget all the kids who are too young to know anything else except how to fight and die in this hellhole.
With regards to the big picture, all we’re given is that the Catholics are on one side, the Protestants are on the other, and they’re all out for blood even though this one disagreement about religion is the only thing they don’t have in common. Even worse, both sides are living practically on top of each other in Belfast, and peace between them will break down at the slightest provocation. And if that wasn’t bad enough, there are factions within the factions: There are hotheads who want to shoot first and ask questions never, there are wiser figures who’d rather lay low and attack by stealth at the opportune moments, and then you have double agents who could switch from one side to the other at a moment’s notice.
And remember: This is a civil war between two people of the same country whose only major difference is their brand of Christianity. There’s absolutely no way to tell them apart (especially if you’re not familiar with the war or the territory, as the characters are and the audience isn’t), so there’s no way of telling friend from foe. And that’s a huge freaking problem for someone like Hook, who just happened to get stuck in hostile territory while wearing the wrong uniform. He doesn’t even have a dog in this fight, he just wants to get home in one piece.
In so many ways, the film’s presentation is evocative of modern-day battlefields in the Middle East. The Protestant/Catholic feud in the movie is portrayed in a way that looks strikingly similar to the Shiite/Sunni conflicts of today. We’re also treated to scenes of military forces raiding homes, beating up civilians on the street, rioters throwing rocks at support troops who are trying to hold the line without escalating hostilities, and of course, guerrilla fighters stockpiling weapons stolen from enemy combatants. Hell, we even get a rather crucial scene involving an IED.
Of course, it also helps that the film was shot and edited with a distinctly “cinema verite” style. It works better in some cases than others. On the one hand, the shaky-cam got really obnoxious in spots and the film’s nocturnal orange streetlights got rather dull to look at over time. On the other hand, the whole film had a distinctly gritty feel to it that made everything — particularly the violence — feel very immersive. It works more often than it fails, and the result is incredible when it does work.
A huge part of that is naturally thanks to our leading actor. I still prefer O’Connell’s work in Starred Up, but that’s mostly because he had so much more to work with in that movie. That’s in no way a knock against him here, however, as O’Connell succeeds in playing a fine upstanding Irish lad who’s scared shitless because he’s in so far over his head. It certainly helps that Hook is a trained soldier who would rather not take a life unless absolutely necessary, even though he’s entirely capable of killing, and that keeps him sympathetic. Last but not least, Hook takes all manner of punishment as the film unfolds, and O’Connell sells every last injury like a pro.
(CORRECTION: I have since been informed that Hook’s hometown of Derbyshire is in England, not Ireland. In retrospect, this could make him analogous to an American or some other foreign soldier currently fighting in the modern Middle East.)
Alas, no one else in the cast is anywhere near as memorable. Some supporting characters left an impression, however. I liked Sean (Barry Keoghan), a boy who clearly wants to fight in this war to vent a few social and mental issues, though it’s unclear if he could ever actually be a killer. The character is practically mute and his face hardly ever changes, which makes it all the more compelling to guess what he’ll finally do. We also have Corey McKinley as an unnamed Protestant kid, who brings a very welcome bit of vulgar comic relief. There’s also the sympathetic doctor Eamon, played in a solid turn by Richard Dormer, alongside Charlie Murphy as his lovely and paranoid daughter. The last honorable mention goes to Sam Reid, playing the charming and well-intentioned yet hopelessly incompetent Lt. Armitage.
Everyone else in the movie is pretty much unremarkable. We meet some of Hook’s fellow soldiers, we meet some two-dimensional firebrands in the IRA, we meet some other guy in the IRA, and we meet some British double-agents who are working undercover among the Protestants. I honestly couldn’t bring myself to care about any of them.
Overall, ’71 is a really good movie. The film gets by on a superbly immersive presentation that depicts the North Ireland conflict in a timely and compelling way, even if the shaky-cam goes a little too far at times. It also helps that the premise lends itself to outstanding tension and Jack O’Connell carries the entire film like a champ.
And once again, it has the novelty of being a gritty war drama that doesn’t take place during goddamn World War fucking Two. Recommended.