Yann Demange’s tense thriller, ’71, set almost entirely over the course of one fateful day in 1971 Belfast, Northern Ireland, at the height of The Troubles, is both a political and personal film. Told from the perspective of British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), a new recruit on the cusp of manhood, sent into battle before he’s even finished his training, ’71 looks at the clandestine machinations on both sides of the struggle — the IRA and the British Army and MRF who sometimes even collaborate and scheme together— but is completely devoid of the history behind the conflict: Gary is too young to understand the years of grief and oppression that caused the Troubles, so what he sees, and what we see, are the ways in which people get swept up in the battle, in the fight, without thinking.
When Gary’s unit is deployed in Belfast, and sent to assist the local police on a routine search of a local IRA home, a riot breaks out. In an attempt to recover a gun that gets stolen during the riot, Gary finds himself not only separated from his unit, but badly beaten, lost, and alone, deep in enemy territory. The rest of the film follows him as he struggles to survive the night, when telling the difference between friend and foe is no easy matter. His supposed enemies end up being the ones saving his life. And by the end of the night, almost everyone, including the MRF, wants him dead.
On their way to the household search near the beginning of the film, Gary’s unit rides through the streets of Belfast, finding wreckage at every corner: a vehicle on fire, smoke or rubble at every turn, and they’re even met with balloons full of urine and feces, thrown by local children. At the scene of the riot, it takes time for the momentum to build, but eventually everyone ends up caught up in it, unable to think, just viscerally engaging.
The women start by banging their trash can lids on the ground, making a ruckus. The soldiers line up across the street to form a barrier. As things escalate, Demange shoots with an increasingly shaky handheld camera, because in the thick of battle, you have no perspective, it’s all about survival. When Gary hears a man being beaten by the police behind him, he turns to look, but he doesn’t have time to let the shock or horror of what he’s witnessed register. He has a crowd to control. There’s no time to let his own personal politics or feelings enter into the battle. When Gary has to flee a throng of IRA men after his skin — they’ve shot one of his fellow soldiers who was also separated from the unit and now they’re after him — the camera movements get increasingly erratic and shaky. He can’t think. He just has to act.
Once he makes his escape, the film takes on a more measured pace. Now, Gary has to think and plan or he won’t survive the night. He finds an outhouse to hide out in and recover. This short scene may be some of O’Connell’s finest work. First, he’s out of breath, panicked, just trying to calm down. Next, he’s terrified, crying, fetal, angry, and totally broken. But he pulls himself together, he thinks things through. When he emerges, he’s discarded his uniform, and he’s picked up clothing from the clothesline in the backyard, ready to walk the streets to figure out his next move. The labyrinthine streets glimmer with golden light from the streetlights, as if from an impressionistic painting — like Pissarro’s nighttime Paris streetscapes — lending the scene a surrealistic quality: what danger lurks around the corner? It’s also gorgeous to look at.
Demange is a master at sustaining tension, without being afraid to pause for a breather now and then, to spend some time with the characters Gary encounters. As Demange told me in an interview, his goal was to avoid action fatigue: rather than speeding things up as we reach the climax, he counter-intuitively slows things down, as the stakes get higher. It actually serves to increase the intensity of the action without resorting to quick cuts and a shaky camera. Part of what makes the night so nerve-wracking for Gary is that there are these moment of calm, shot with Steadicam or on sticks, where people talk to him calmly. He never knows when his life is suddenly going to be in danger again. It makes every threat and every shot fired shocking.
Although O’Connell is in nearly every scene of the film, he rarely speaks. Yet this is an utterly compelling, thrilling, emotionally resonant and vulnerable performance. There’s not quite as much to work with as in Starred Up — his character arc is a simple story of disillusionment — but the film is undeniable proof that O’Connell is a movie star. The world just hasn’t discovered him yet. Once Gary’s caught behind enemy lines, there’s a practical reason for his silence: his British accent would give him away before his boots do.
But there’s something bigger at work here, too, in Gary’s silence. This is a film about the class system. As someone with a working-class accent, at the bottom of the ranks in the army, Gary is silent partly because he doesn’t have the social right to be heard. The film has such a heightened awareness of the accents of each of its characters, and their relationship to class — from Gary’s senior commanding officer, Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid), with a posh Etonian accent, to the black corporal with a Jamaican accent (Babou Ceesay) — that the sounds of everyone’s voices, or the lack thereof, are themselves a statement. Gary doesn’t speak much, in part because Gary is a pawn, at the bottom of the social ladder, and at the bottom rung of the army’s ladder. When the army proudly declares that they protect their own, that courtesy does not, it turns out, extend to Gary.
The first time I watched the film, I was completely caught up in Gary’s struggle to escape the IRA on his trail, to survive. I was fascinated by his unlikely friends. First, there’s the foul-mouthed young Irish boy (Corey McKinley), who reminds him of his younger brother whom he visited at the beginning of the film, and who tries to brings him to safety. Then, there’s the Irishman and former Army medic, Eamon (Richard Dormer), and his daughter (Charlie Murphy), who mistake him for one of their own and give him shelter. Even those Gary encounters almost tangentially can be fascinating. There’s the IRA leader (David Wilmot) who is willing to set aside his political agenda, to spare a poor English boy’s life, but also sees it as an opportunity to get rid of a loose cannon in his army (Killian Scott) by conspiring with the British MRF. And there’s the young IRA initiate (Barry Keoghan) who wants to be a gun runner, fighting for the cause, but isn’t quite ready to kill a man. He wants to belong but he doesn’t quite understand the weight of what that means.
But on second viewing, I had more time to think about the bigger picture. Who was responsible for putting Gary in this predicament? Why did Gary get separated from his unit in the first place? Shouldn’t he have been wearing riot gear for this assignment? Couldn’t the army have predicted that a riot was likely and have prepared the men accordingly? Would that have made a difference? He was dressed in riot gear when Armitage decided, at the last minute, that he wanted his men in berets, instead, to reassure the locals. Was this decision Armitage’s poor training and liberal conscious at work?
Was Gary’s nightmarish evening Armitage’s fault, even though, by the end, Armitage is the only one interested in saving Gary’s life? Or is it the army’s fault for putting Armitage, somebody Posh, in charge, even though he’s too ill-prepared and ill-informed about the realities of the situation to be making the decisions? Is the MRF wrong to want Gary dead by the end? Is this really necessary for them to do their job? Is this hypocrisy at work or incompetence or both? There are no easy answers to these questions, and it’s to the film’s credit that it keeps the waters murky, even as it has you cheering for Gary. Can he even escape without being corrupted, too? The film is certainly cynical about the inner-workings of the army. Recalling his own days in the army, as he stitches Gary up, Eamon describes the organization as “Posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts.” By the end of the film, it’s hard to argue with his assessment, and it’s a chilling one.
’71 is now streaming on Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime.
Read more: Director Yann Demange on the making of ’71 >>