Film of the week: ’71

Yann Demange’s début feature wrings spills and thrills – if limited dramatic insights – from the labyrinth of Ulster’s historical Troubles.

Trevor Johnston

from our November 2014 issue

’71 (2014)

’71 (2014)

It’s a scene familiar from any number of war movies. The platoon members sit attentively while their commanding officer points at a map, outlining the details of the upcoming mission. Usually, that’s a guarantee that all will not go precisely to plan, but the soldiers’ individual acts of courage or ingenuity will likely shape their own resolution.

In this instance, however, the generic aspects of the story take on a very individual shading, since these British squaddies are getting their heads round the tribal geography of early-70s West Belfast. The year is 1971 and members of the British military – at first welcomed by a Catholic community living in fear of their Protestant neighbours, as political tensions escalated into violence – have become IRA targets and the object of much resentment in Republican areas. West Belfast, as the officer explains to his men, offers the most complex few square miles in the whole fractious environment, since Republican and Unionist heartlands exist mere streets away from each other. The former is definitely unfriendly territory, the latter somewhat more welcoming – a difference that could mean life or death for any of the soldiers yet to find his bearings.

Yann Demange’s début feature puts the audience in the boots of Jack O’Connell’s teenage Private Hook, just shipped over from the north of England and about to hit the pavement on patrol for the first time. His fears are those of any young soldier facing a combat situation, though here the enemy is particularly elusive and ill-defined, apart from the telling technicality that he’ll be pointing his rifle at British citizens on British soil. In this way, the film plays with elements both universal and particular, and to an extent it’s where between the two the dividing line falls that accounts for its strengths and weaknesses.

For one thing, Gary Hook is an everyman, virtually to the point of anonymity. A brief opening section sees him contacting his little brother, who appears to be in the same children’s home where he himself grew up, thus hinting that the protagonist might find in British army fatigues structure and prospects otherwise lacking in his life. Nothing conclusive, though, so as Hook beds down in his regiment’s makeshift Belfast accommodation, whether he’s bristling antihero, colonialist dupe or eager psycho is all up for grabs.

This works well for the story when his very first operation goes pear-shaped, a riot breaking out when the residents of a Catholic side-street are incensed by the line of Brits protecting the RUC during a brutal house-search for Republican weapons. Soon Hook’s comrade is lying dead from an IRA bullet, and the lad himself – minus his weapon – is haring along back alleys in fear of his life, armed pursuers on his tail, his uniform now a potentially deadly liability.

That we’re absolutely on the side of this young fugitive is in part evidence of O’Connell’s charismatic facility for suggesting the vulnerable soul behind a tough-nut exterior. He doesn’t have nearly as much character to work with here as he did in David Mackenzie’s potent prison saga Starred Up, but he does enough to have us worrying for him as Demange whizzes the camera through a dizzying warren of terraced houses and backyards.

’71 (2014)

’71 (2014)

Notwithstanding relatively modest resources, and indeed locations in Liverpool, Blackburn and Sheffield rather than Belfast itself, the director brings vividness into play every time the going gets tough. The build-up of panic during the riot and Hook’s subsequent headlong flight are certainly effectively orchestrated, though they’re topped by a later set piece involving an explosion that comes without warning in a local pub, where the aftermath of blanketing smoke, charred victims and a ringing soundscape that suggests temporary hearing loss combine to create a memorably infernal vision of urban carnage.

Such visceral you-are-there intensity only gets the film so far, however, and Gregory Burke’s script, essentially adept in the way it seizes on West Belfast as a microcosm of the wider Troubles, gets good mileage out of this innocent-grunt-abroad material before it necessarily moves on to detail the surrounding sociopolitical landscape. His dialogue is spot-on, and he certainly gets the tribalism right. The little boy on the Loyalist barricade who asks Hook whether he’s a Protestant or a Catholic might seem schematic to the outsider, but my memories of growing up in the east of the city during the same dark era confirm that purposely divisive them-and-us indoctrination was standard Ulster practice.

Burke devotes much expositional energy to a hawks-versus-doves conflict within Republican ranks, as rival factions contend to capture O’Connell’s resilient fugitive. But Burke, who won widespread acclaim for his Iraq tour-of-duty play Black Watch, is also alert to the distinctive power balance within the British forces, where the unit’s posh-accented lieutenant finds himself outranked by the plain-clothes intelligence crew (fronted by the ever villainous Sean Harris), who are secretly scheming their way towards undercover influence on both sides of the conflict’s ideological schism.

Much of this is slightly superficial – workable as a series of plot holes into which the undercharacterised Hook is positioned when necessary, but not altogether persuasive as historical analysis. Spotlighting British army skulduggery while only sketching in the local roots of the turmoil ultimately makes for a decidedly tangential and somewhat partial approach to hugely complex terrain.

’71 (2014)

’71 (2014)

As such, for all the film’s immediate impact (especially in the stronger first half), ’71 fits alongside such relatively recent thrillers as Kari Skogland’s Fifty Dead Men Walking and James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer, which lack a defined thematic agenda and instead use the Northern Irish setting as a handy provider of explosive conflict and readymade tension. Given that the action element is the film’s most forceful component, it might even have more in common with, say, Walter Hill’s 1981 lost-patrol minor classic Southern Comfort than with the output of a previous, more politically engaged generation of British filmmakers who were working on the small screen while fires were still raging in Northern Ireland – pace the angry, bleak absurdism of Alan Clarke’s 1988 Elephant, for example, finding a perfect equilibrium between the universal and the particular – or indeed the arrestingly Welsh take on the Troubles’ colonial aspect in Karl Francis’s 1986 S4C drama Boy Soldier.

Little seen, and admittedly somewhat ungainly, that film at least had the advantage of putting its youthful private’s moral awakening effectively centre-stage, something that Demange and Burke struggle to achieve, since the blank-canvas portrayal of Hook in the opening exchanges comes back to haunt the film later on. Yes, there’s more initial sympathy for the fierce jeopardy in which he finds himself, but as the story closes in on its conclusion there’s not much narrative traction involved in his gaining a fuller picture of his own side’s malpractices, since to this rather amorphous individual it never seemed that much of an issue anyway. Story-wise, the result falls into a hole between the universality of the frightened kid in uniform and the challenging particulars of Northern Ireland’s raging past – but there is still much to admire on screen, not least the palpable atmosphere of incipient dread in the labyrinth of unfamiliar streets.

Belfast-born David Holmes’s unsettling, percussive score (thankfully devoid of the clichéd Celtic folkery most Ulster-set films are burdened with) and cameraman Tat Radcliffe’s assured approximation of the washed-out palette of vintage news footage make their contribution to a confident, muscular début from Demange; and for all its flaws ’71 offers a lapel-grabbing, immersive viewing experience likely to shake up audiences who couldn’t otherwise care less about the boredom-factor whys and wherefores of Northern Ireland’s bitterest years.

 

In the November 2014 issue of Sight & Sound

Troubles and strife

Yann Demange, director of ’71, talks about Super 16, balancing Pontecorvo and John Carpenter, and a lost chance for Ricky Gervais. By Adam Nayman.

  • Sight & Sound: the November 2014 issue

    Sight & Sound: the November 2014 issue

    Mike Leigh gets Romantic, Darwinian sci-fi and the birth of the Method. Plus Nightcrawler, ’71, Gone Girl, The Knick, Venice and Toronto, agnès b,...

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