’71 review: Bold and powerful

Posted on 17 October 2014
By George Anthony Heron
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Jack O’Connell returns to our screens after his explosive performance in last year’s Starred Up. This time he’s showing more of his vulnerable side as a British soldier struggling to stay alive after being deployed in the war zone that is Belfast, Northern Ireland of the titular year, ’71.

It’s Protestants against Catholics and the British Army are there to try and keep the peace. Or are they? An irrevocable series of events envelop O’Connell’s Private Gary Hook and is the very definition of tense.

The writer and director are mostly experienced in TV movies and serials. Auteur Yann Demange worked on gritty Channel 4 drama Top Boy, whilst writer Gregory Burke has experience of TV programmes involving the military, writing Black Watch about a Scottish regiment stationed in Iraq.

They have expressed in recent interviews that the atrocities in this film are universal and that people from around the world have said that this is what it is like in their country. The terraces of Northern Ireland look aesthetically similar to those in Walton, Liverpool and it’s a scary thought to imagine the riots and explosions occurring there.

In terms of the era it is depicting, first impressions are that Belfast is a hell hole filled with hostile inhabitants that riot with both Police and Army. Even the children throw water bombs filled with urine at the authorities.

The Army at first come across as innocents doing their job. But no one is infallible or unimpeachable in this film. The amount of political double and triple-crossing between all sides hurt bewilders as much as disgusts.

O’Connell is put through the mill in this one. You see him in the beginning training as a soldier and then you see him put in situations where some of it is put to good use and others that are impossible to train for, situations where only sheer will to survive will get you through.

It’s a very physical part with little speech involved that he pulls off well, but perhaps he stands out as being a little too squeaky clean compared to the moral ambiguity of everyone else.

David Wilmot (calvary) does his best Jim McDonald of Coronation Street impersonation as Catholic head honcho Boyle, a man finding it difficult to keep his subordinates under control.

Sean Harris looks like a less unkempt version of Robert Carlyle’s Begby from Trainspotting and almost manages to match his intensity as the British Captain Browning, someone higher up the chain with more of the means required to manipulate events his way.

The tension is palpable for the most part. However, there is one scene where I started to feel they were trying to generate too much of it and Dermot O’Leary was going to pop up saying whether he made it into boot camp or not. Other than that, the pacing is very well judged.

’71 is a graphic depiction of the horrors of war, the futility of conflict, the agendas within politics. You will feel so immersed in this that it will chill you to think that this is still happening all around the world today.

It is brave to tackle a part of our history that is still a sore subject for many and they manage to pull it off even-handedly, whilst at the same time not pulling any punches. A powerful motion picture debut by Demange.