Yann Demange’s ’71 is a film steeped in familiar tropes from the first minute. Its protagonist is Gary Hook, a steely but untested British soldier played by the grimly handsome Jack O’Connell (who had a breakout 2014 with his work in prison drama Starred Up and overheated Oscar bait Unbroken). His untested commanding officer (Sam Reid) is stiff of upper lip but shaky of voice. And the situation their unit is thrust into, in 1971 Belfast at the height of the Troubles, quickly descends into bloody chaos, with the hero separated from his unit and struggling to survive the night in the city’s most dangerous district.
’71 is Demange’s feature debut, but it’s an accomplished war thriller, with a twisty plot featuring heroes and villains on both sides of the British/Irish conflict, and shaky-cam Jason Bourne-style action that successfully conveys Hook’s knife-edge survival odds. The question is whether it’s all coming together around the right plot. The period being explored is fascinating, but ’71 makes so much effort to be suspenseful that it doesn’t have much time to get into nuance. This is no simple story where the British troops are heroes holding the line and the Irish Republican Army are evil terrorists; neither is it the reverse, with Hook learning the hard lessons of British occupation in Belfast. But although it’s steeped in the complex politics of the era, it doesn’t get very far in fleshing them out. And its conclusion—that good and bad lie on both sides of the fight—feels less compelling than the film would like to believe.
’71 boils this down pretty simply: Once Hook is behind enemy lines following a deadly clash with protestors, he contends with the seen-it-all old guard of the former IRA and the younger, radical leaders of the more violent splinter group, the Provisional IRA. By 1971, political violence was reaching a fever pitch in Northern Ireland, where deployed British troops failed to maintain a position in the “free” parts of Catholic Belfast controlled either by the IRA or the nascent Provisionals.
Added to all this is the British Military Reaction Force, a secret police agency largely comprised of sleeper agents seeking to pit both sides against each other to divide and conquer. It’s here where one might hope for subtlety in the form of morally gray characters, but in Demange and screenwriter Gregory Burke’s telling, ’71 becomes more of a spy thriller and a predictable one at that. Everyone’s motives are pretty clearly spelled out, often through rather plodding dialogue, and Hook encounters characters who both help and hinder him, which humanizes every side.
While Hook inadvertently comes across MRF's dark machinations in his journey through Belfast, he never becomes a superhero in search of simple justice. This is admirable restraint on ‘71’s part, but it also means the film becomes quite a bleak slog toward a bloody conclusion. O’Connell, who continues to prove himself as one of Britain’s brightest young stars, finds real humanity behind the eyes of his mostly silent protagonist, though it dims to a faint flicker as the film lumbers on. After all, ’71 is set well before any notable progress in the Irish peace process, at a time that served as a mere prelude to the nightmare of Bloody Sunday (in 1972), where British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians during a protest march. So the its overriding conclusion can only be pessimistic. There’s no solution to be found from Hook’s journey.
But with that as a given, one wonders at the purpose of setting ’71 around a British soldier’s fight to survive. Hook’s heroism is rooted in his simple decency, and the same goes for the Irish citizens who lend him help throughout the film. With that comes the uncomfortable implication that he’s learning they aren’t all barbarians after all, nor are the Brits such saints—a somewhat basic takeaway that should be clear enough from the opening minutes of the film, but which takes the full running time to really settle in. ’71 is trying to give viewers perspective on the ambiguous fog of war. But when that’s accomplished by having characters on all sides revealed as either goodly saints or desperate villains—and nothing in-between—there's not much of a lesson being learned.