’71 places Jack O’Connell in yet another impressive role as a British soldier who is left behind by his unit in a hostile territory in Belfast during “the Troubles” in–you guessed it–1971. This is director Yann Demange’s feature film debut, and it safely borders the line between action movie and political thriller.
What was the Troubles, you ask? As someone born and raised in the U.S. and never taught a single thing about Irish history in my 19 years of schooling aside from maybe where St. Patty’s Day comes from, I asked myself the same question. As the movie quickly describes it, there was a conflict going on between the Protestants and the Catholics. From a British point of view, the Protestants were the “friendlies” and the Catholics were the “hostiles.” To be more specific, it was a political conflict between Protestant loyalists and Catholic nationalists or republicans. There were quite a few issues going on between the two groups, one of them involving whether or not Northern Ireland should stay within the UK. Without giving a history lesson or sounding stupid to those who were better educated than I was, let’s just say militant groups on both sides, like the IRA for example, were rioting and killing each other. The British army was involved, the government and police force was corrupt, and so on and so forth.
So how does O’Connell fit into all of this? He plays a British soldier named Gary Hook, who, upon being caught in the middle of a riot, is accidentally left behind by his unit and has to try to survive on the deadly streets on his own. He is hunted and helped by people from both sides, and he is never really sure about who is a friend or a foe.
Last year was a break out year for O’Connell, after having starred in the critically acclaimed drama Starred Up and the not-so-acclaimed Unbroken, as well as the really terrible 300: Rise of an Empire. Regardless of how good or bad the movie was, his performances never failed to impress. It’s the same deal here, although thankfully, this movie does not suck.
’71 is seemingly a simple story about a young man who has to try and survive the night in a foreign land, but there’s actually a lot more going on in the plot than just that. You’re dealing with corruption, double agents on both sides, civilians who are coerced into acting out violently due to blind loyalty, children suffering the consequences, and many people living in fear. Hook is at the center of all of it, never knowing where to turn, having people shoot at him and bombs going off around him, you can sense his confusion and desperation to get to safety.
O’Connell is mostly silent throughout this film, but still affecting. You don’t get to know much about his character aside from the fact that he has a younger brother who is in some kind of state care facility, yet you still care about what happens to him. I will admit that the most thrilling scenes in this movie are the ones that are focused on him. His attempts at survival are, if nothing else, suspenseful. There’s an intensity I felt while watching him running down alleys and ducking into the shadows. It’s mostly well balanced, though, with O’Connell’s scenes being something closer to an action movie, and the secondary characters setting up for what would seem like more of a political thriller. Captain Browning (Sean Harris), for example, is playing both sides of the field throughout the film, but his true intentions are clear to the viewer, he is not a good guy. The suspense in these scenes come from whether or not the other characters will figure this out before it’s too late, and if there will even be consequences when they do.
Demange depicts a world where corruption goes far up the ranks, where young people get caught up fighting for causes they probably don’t fully understand, struggling between what they know is right and what they’re being told is right, and where innocent people are shot at and blown to bits. I’m not sure how true this depiction is, there are some people out there who have actually lived through these conflicts and witnessed them first hand and maybe think this plot is too simplified or not political enough, whereas others will think the opposite. I like the balance, but then again, what do I know?
Aside from the sometimes excessive shaky cam, the cinematography successfully captures the essence of a war torn city, there’s fires in the streets, people running about and shouting, and a general dark and grittiness to the film. Jack O’Connell, as usual, excels in the lead role and so do a lot of the supporting characters, especially Sean Harris, as well as a young, foul-mouthed boy O’Connell meets at one point in the film. Good people die, bad people live, and justice isn’t always served, ’71 is an emotional and thrilling film that illustrates these sad but true elements that often accompany violent, political conflicts. I really enjoyed it and I believe it’s one of the better movies released in the U.S. this year.