’71 is a claustrophobic experience, as gray and imposing as the film’s muted color palette. Set largely in Belfast during the midst of one of the most violent periods of the Northern Ireland Conflict, the feature directorial debut of Yann Demange doesn’t floor us with fresh insights about war or man’s inhumanity to man. No, ’71 is far too intimately focused on its besieged protagonist for anything so sweeping. How can one worry about poetry when not getting killed is the higher priority?
The film stars Jack O’Connell, best known to American audiences as the lead in Unbroken, although he was better, simpler, in the little-seen Starred Up, a marvelous British drama in which he played a ferociously volatile prisoner coping with the presence of his long-lost convict father (Ben Mendelsohn). In all three films, O’Connell projects a rugged, effortless authenticity—he is all live-wire intensity, even while he mostly stands there, doing nothing.
In ’71, O’Connell is British soldier Gary Hook, although the character is left so intentionally unspecific that it’s almost as if he has no name. We know Gary has a young brother, to whom he says goodbye early in the film, assuring the boy he’ll be safe. That turns out to be inaccurate: He and his fellow soldiers are shipped to Belfast to serve as security for an area heavily divided between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists. Almost immediately, Gary’s troop faces angry protests from Catholics in the region—kids hurl vulgarities, the adults throw rocks—and quickly, maddeningly, shots are fired. Trying to retrieve a British machine gun pilfered by a local kid, Gary soon discovers he’s cut off from his squadron, every city street now a potential death zone.
Taking place over the course of about a day, ’71 sticks close to Gary as he navigates through Belfast. Only occasionally resorting to what might be considered traditional action or chase scenes, Demange (who cut his teeth on commercials and short films) builds unease from the simplest, most effective tools. An overlay of lingering tension, a sense that forces are closing in on him—some friendly, some not—a stripped-down aesthetic that allows for no speechifying or extraneous characterization: ’71 turns Belfast at night into a place where rumbling anxieties could explode at any second, where one’s moment-to-moment reality is more important than any sort of long view.
In the middle of this, O’Connell doesn’t act so much as just embody fight-or-flight anxiety. Outside of a stray attempt to provide a little sympathetic coloring at the outset, Demange and screenwriter Gregory Burke aren’t concerned about an audience’s investment in Gary; they figure, correctly, that the events of ’71 will be enough to win us over to their hero’s side. And in those rare moments of relative quiet, the brief glimpses into Gary’s personality are inconclusive but enticing: an exchange with a young woman (Charlie Murphy) who cares for his wounds; a showdown with a young would-be agitator (Barry Keoghan) who wants to kill Gary, if only he can summon up the courage. Like Gary, everyone else in ’71 seems squeezed in—crushed, really—by the so-called Troubles. Maybe if we had the chance to know these people apart from the conflict, we could have a fuller understanding of who they are or where they stand. Instead, Gary is thrust into a world where he can’t trust anyone—“their side” and “our side” can be very difficult to determine in this movie, and so he’s mostly a cornered animal, moving just enough to stay ahead of those after him, wondering if help is ever going to arrive.
Demange’s up-close approach, enhanced by Tat Radcliffe’s stark cinematography, has its downsides. ’71 can feel so vérité, so devoted to emphasizing a dispassionate tone, that it’s almost impersonal, mechanical, an exercise in crafting tension. But such a consciously harsh style reaps later rewards. ’71 views Gary’s plight pitilessly, just as it does those on both sides of the conflict. Without making a fuss, the film seems to see all military action as largely pointless, perhaps even antithetical to a group’s stated political objectives. In such a crucible, soldiers are, as one person says in ’71, merely meat, but there’s no teary-eyed revelation in the fact—like everything here, it’s presented as blunt truth.
Director: Yann Demange
Writer: Gregory Burke
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Paul Anderson, Richard Dormer, Sean Harris, Barry Keoghan, Martin McCann, Charlie Murphy
Release Date:Feb. 27, 2015
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.