Photo: ”71’/Universal Pictures
’71 is a historical action/thriller about an inexperienced British soldier, Gary Hook, (Jack O’Connell) who is caught in a particularly deadly situation after being unexpectedly sent to Belfast during The Troubles in the titular year, 1971. It is a tense and raw depiction of a complex, much ignored (at least cinematically) conflict that is consistently high in thrills despite its thin plot.
’71 is extremely tense from beginning to end. After the first violent incident, the plot takes a sharp turn which thrusts our soldier into a seriously dangerous situation. The tension then continuously escalates until the last few minutes. The violence is very well handled. It often feels random, which is why it works – many deaths feel like tragic shocks rather than expected casualties. ’71 is brutal in a way that is horrifying without ever being exploitative. It is extremely tense – you feel that anything could happen at any moment.
This sense of Belfast as a hellish landscape is powerfully captured by debut director Yann Demange, who holds nothing back in relation to depicting the horror of the situation – the pub scene is so nightmarish that it evokes moments from Apocalypse Now (1979)’s latter third. Our hero is faced with constant, life-threatening antagonism – the Northern Irish police, IRA, and undercover British agents (brilliantly spearheaded by the perennially evil Sean Harris) each harbour nefarious motives. ’71 is a film that never lets up. It is a great exercise in sustained tension, above all else.
The film benefits from the inexperience of its protagonist – it genuinely feels like Gary is totally unprepared for the situation he has entered, which is a feature expertly communicated by the chaotic, game-changing initial riot. Like the audience, he has not been given the appropriate information to understand the nuance of the situation, yet he is thrust into it regardless, like an animal put up for slaughter.
Gary is very likable. We know very little about him, that he is a soldier and that he has a good relationship with a young, orphaned boy. What sells us is not his backstory, but rather the natural intensity of the situation and Jack O’Connell’s incredibly physical performance. He reacts to the peril he faces in a totally natural way, and you really feel for him. The pivotal events are especially well handled – Gary’s first experience of death is harrowing, as is his second, as is his first kill. There is something very real about the way these moments are communicated which really adds to the film’s power.
Furthermore, ’71 wisely avoids being too heavy-handed on history. The Troubles is an extremely complex conflict, and too much plot would have killed the natural intensity that comes from being shown the situation rather than told it. Additionally, it makes it easier to identify with Gary when we have the same information he does. ’71s decision to commit to being an action/thriller with a historical edge is thus mostly successful.
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Dynamic between Northern Irish Police, Corrupt British Army and IRA
In some ways, though ’71 sets out a difficult path for itself. Though its lack of contextual clarity is beneficial to the overall intensity of proceedings, for some it may be frustrating to not know what is going on. The different antagonists are given very little profile, though they are still convincing. Though it is absolutely ’71s point to not spell out the history, this may still disappoint those who want a meatier story. Still, it is worth saying that ’71 effectively conveys the complexity of The Troubles without much explanation, which is a hard thing to do. The depiction of the dynamic between the Northern Irish police, the corrupt British army, and the infighting IRA makes it immediately apparent that the situation is not immediately solvable, which creates a suitably dramatic sense of hopelessness.
The film’s visual style is hit and miss. It reminded me of Paul Greengrass’ work, namely the Bourne films – there is a lot of cutting and shaky cam. This is, I think, designed to make the audience feel disorientated in the same way that the main character is. The problem is that when you can feel the filmmakers attempting to make you feel a certain way, the film is perhaps not working as well as it could be. It is true that ’71 is highly disorientating nonetheless, but the aggressive shaky cam feels like a lazy way to convey this.
An Intense and Uncomfortable Ride
Similarly, though the thin nature of the plot is necessary to the immediate, desperate feel the film carries, this is also what stops it from being that memorable. ’71 is an extremely visceral ride in the moment but weeks, months, and years after the fact, you may forget just how shaking it is. This is because the overall story is not very noteworthy. You will likely remember how you felt rather than what actually happened. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it perhaps explains why ’71 has gone under so many people’s radar. Many, including myself, enjoy it greatly, but it is by no means a classic. It is mainly noteworthy for its intensity and for tackling a subject that few films do.
’71 is a great watch for those who don’t mind an intense, often uncomfortable ride. This intensity is its greatest strength. If you are interested in The Troubles, I would consider it a necessary viewing. It has a very likable protagonist who is excellently and empathetically portrayed by Jack O’Connell. ’71 avoids a problem many similar films face by putting the audience at the heart of a historically relevant situation rather than explaining one. This lack of explanation is in some ways, ’71s downfall too, but it should be commended for presenting a complex conflict with nuance and concision. Its’ Bourne-invoking visual style is slightly uneven but it ultimately succeeds in making you feel the chaos. ’71s thin plot also means that it doesn’t quite reach the heights it could have reached – however, it clearly wants this microscopic focus and it is visceral, thrilling, and powerful enough to still feel necessary.
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Amhara Chamberlayne is a graduate in English Literature from Warwick University who shares Hollywood Insider’s passion for cinema. When he is not watching films he is writing about them. Uninterested in gossip and agenda, Amhara instead believes in sharing his honest individual reaction to cinema. He enjoys the multi-variant reactions films elicit and believes his take is just as valid as others. For Amhara, the joy lies in the exchange of opinions.