By Anna Power @TLE_Film
’71 is a darkly disturbing, intensely evocative, riveting portrayal of a young soldier’s experience of war, in the bitterest of conflicts, that of the Northern Ireland troubles.
Jack O’Connell (Starred Up) is rapidly emerging as the actor of his generation with his elliptical, highly emotive performance as private Gary Hook, an army new recruit from small town Derbyshire. From children’s home to army barracks, his first posting sees his troop rerouted to Belfast due to increasing instability there. The recruits are told they’re not going to a foreign country but ‘staying home’ and are shipped and shunted into makeshift barracks on the outskirts of Unionist Belfast, their sergeant jokes – it’s only temporary ’till one of the paddies shoots you’.
Ill-prepared with little experience of life, let alone armed combat and the dirty, neighbour vs neighbour, civil-war type street battles that a war of this type comprises, Hook and his unit are soon thrust onto the front line. Initially showered by children with ‘piss bombs’ (balloons filled with urine), things soon escalate to the thunderous caterwauling of bin lids pounding the pavement by women announcing the arrival of the British army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, conducting house raids. It’s an assault on their senses, and as an angry mob of men, women and children clash with the army line, skirmishes break out and a boy makes a grab for a soldier’s riffle. Ordered to pursue, Hook and another private are left behind as the fray escalates and the army retreat.
It’s a dismal affair, the scene depicted with screaming intensity to horrifying effect. What follows is a gut-wrenching, nerve-splitting, murder-chase through the rabbit-warren of red bricked back alleys of hostile Catholic Belfast, as Hook embarks on an Odyssey to find his way back to barracks. In the chase, day becomes night, and the journey is a brutal one, where friend and foe become inextricably confused, Hook helped at one point unwittingly by ex-army medic and IRA sympathiser Eamon (Richard Dormer) whose vitriolic diatribe on the army includes the warning, ‘you’re just a piece of meat to them’. The night’s events form a merciless rite of passage for Hook with a fraught, unforgiving awakening into adulthood.
The sheer brilliance of ’71 is in its ability to convey, through this young soldier’s eyes (both literally and figuratively) the visceral horror and brutality of war, the naivety and political ignorance of soldiers on foreign soil, the oft times ineptitude of their commanding officers and the expendability of soldiers caught in the quagmire of shifting allegiances and political intrigues.
’71 is the remarkable first feature for director Yann Demange, nominated in this year’s first feature competition at the London Film Festival, a definitive tense, taut thriller that is set to make a significant mark on British filmmaking.
’71 is out on DVD from Monday 9th March.