Robert Henderson is engrossed by an evocation of “The Troubles”
Jack O’Connell as Gary Hook
Richard Dormer as Eamon
Charlie Murphy as Brigid
David Wilmot as Boyle
Sean Harris as Captain Sandy Browning
Killian Scott as James Quinn
Sam Reid as Lt. Armitage
Barry Keoghan as Sean
Paul Anderson as Sergeant Leslie Lewis
Martin McCann as Paul Haggerty
Corey McKinley as Loyalist child
Directed by Yann Demange
Running time: 100 minutes
This is the best film that I have seen for the past twelve months. Throughout 2014 the cinema goer has been besieged with new releases which variously play fast and loose with history for reasons of political correctness (for example, Belle), are saturated with gratuitous sentimentality (Interstellar), purport to be serious films but have insultingly preposterous plots (Fury) or are exercises in directorial indulgence which result in overlong and flabby films (Mr Turner). Consequently, ‘71 is a welcome respite from so much flawed film-making, including a fair amount of seriously sub-standard work from directors who should know better.
The film is unremittingly good. It is set in the Belfast of 1971 where The Troubles have already taken firm hold with Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries well established and the British army caught in the middle as they try to maintain some semblance of public order. Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is a working-class squaddie from Derbyshire who is on his first posting after undergoing basic training.
Shortly after arriving in Ulster Hook’s platoon is sent to support a police action in a nationalist area. They are confronted by a violent mob who isolate Hook and another soldier to whom they administer savage beatings. Then the other soldier is shot in the head from close range and killed. At that point Hook’s inexperienced platoon commander Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid) panics and withdraws his platoon unforgivably leaving Hook behind.
Although badly beaten Hook manages to escape in the general confusion after the shooting and the rest of the film is devoted to his attempts to rejoin his platoon. This involves many subplots, including dirty business on the part of the British army in collusion with Loyalists, factional fighting within the Provos – Haggerty (Martin McCann) and Sean (Barry Keoghan) are plotting against their own chiefs – collusion between renegade Republican terrorists and the British, all of this set against the backdrop of the rock-solid division between Protestant Loyalists and Catholic Republicans.
Hook’s journey to get back to his platoon sees him befriended by a Loyalist boy whose father is high in the ranks of Loyalist paramilitaries. The boy (played by Corey McKinley) is only on screen for around 15 minutes but in that time this gives a performance of astonishing self-assuredness and personality. He takes Hook to a pub where the boy’s father, in collusion with British intelligence operatives led by Captain Sandy Browning (Sean Harris), is arranging to plant a bomb in the Republican Divis Flats. Hook recognises the British intelligence men and sees the bomb before he is hustled away and told to wait in the bar for someone to collect him who will take him back to barracks. But Hook wanders just outside the pub and almost immediately the bomb intended for the Divis Flats explodes accidentally in the bar (incidentally killing the boy) and creates chaos which persuades Hook to go on the run again.
Hook now has two enemies: Republicans who want to kill him and the undercover British intelligence officers who want to do the same after he has seen them with the bomb and the would-be bombers.
Further injured by the bomb, Hook is then found by a couple of Catholics, a father and daughter (Richard Dormer as Eamon and Charlie Murphy as Brigid). The father has been an army medic and patches Hook up even though they know he is a British soldier. But the Republicans are still searching for him Hook and track him to the flat where he is lying up. Hook overhears one of the Republicans chasing him talking at the front door and slips out the back. This leaves Eamon and Brigit in danger from the Provos as suspected collaborators.
From there Hook is on the run until he is captured by the Republicans pursuing him. He survives because a teenaged would-be Republican hard man is asked to shoot him in cold blood but cannot do it. This delays matters just long enough for Browning and his irregulars to arrive where they engage in a very convincing and victorious gun fight with the Republicans. Browning and his men inadvertently rescue Hook whom they wish to kill to make sure he can say nothing about the criminal collusion he has witnessed between Loyalists and British intelligence, but they have to drop the idea when an attempt to strangle Hook is stopped because too many eyes of those who are not part of Browning’s crew are witnessing it.
Back in barracks Hook tries to tell his commanding officer about the bomb plot between Browning and Loyalists, but his CO refuses to listen and effectively orders him to remain silent. The film ends with Hook a disenchanted man in a morally fragile world.
Because of the episodic nature of the film only O’Connell has any chance to give a dominant performance. In fact this is not a role which allows such a performance because Hook is someone to whom things happen. But O’Connell does just what is required being neither in control nor a quivering nervous wreck. He is simply an ordinary inexperienced working-class squaddie doing his very best in difficult circumstances. Doggedness is the word for his character. The other actors are all convincing insofar as the brevity of their roles allowed, with Richard Dormer as Eamon the medic being particularly impressive with his mixture of toughness and compassion. The many and varied Northern Irish accents with their blunt and unapologetic masculinity amplify the potent combination of fear, threat, claustrophobic suspicion and anarchy which envelops the film.
The look of the film is impressive. It was filmed in Blackburn not Belfast, but the unpretentious terraced street, as stark as the action which takes place around and in them, are just right for the story. They are littered variously with ruined vehicles, damaged shops, smoke, mobs and the flickering figures of people from all quarters either up to up good or simply being swept along by the drama of an extraordinary ordinary life. The crowd scenes of Catholics called out at the drop of a hat by the Provos are particularly impressive, while the setting of much of the film in the night-time with fires burning and smoke swirling often gives it a demonic air.
Every scene has a point and the action moves at a cracking pace. This is helped by the fact that the film runs for a spare 100 minutes, so there is no temptation for the director to be self-indulgent and throw in everything including the kitchen sink simply because he has shot it.
This is a world in which no loyalties are certain and calamity waits to swallow anyone up. It is life with the safety catch off.
ROBERT HENDERSON is QR’s film critic