As the lights went up, there was no sound from the sea of harrowed faces around me, and that perfectly sums up ’71, a highly accomplished film debut from director Yann Demange that follows Gary Hook, a young English soldier deployed to Belfast for riot control at the height of the Troubles in 1971. It is a gritty, uncompromising piece of cinema that follows the horrifying experiences of Hook as he is left behind by his platoon and must navigate the hostile streets of Belfast pursued by Catholic Nationalists who want him dead.
After opening with a bloody boxing match, the punches keep on coming, with brutal violence and frequent use of shaky cam – each as nauseating as the other. It is in essence, though, a true thriller, with chilling tension maintained through long scenes of quiet and a sense that there is immediate danger around every corner.
’71 sets itself up as a Northern Irish period piece, but it quickly becomes apparent that, despite the accents and some brief lessons in cultural history, it is a film about the nature of war much more generally. Hook has no specific grievance with either side in the conflict, but he falls victim to the cultural divisions of the country in which he is stranded.
There is a superb interaction between Hook and a young Protestant boy who can’t believe that Hook doesn’t know to what religion he belongs, or why, being from Derby, he should dislike Nottingham, which says a lot about the confused motivations of any faction to fight another that is common to most conflict. Some characters are terrified to help Gary because he is a British soldier but do so anyway, again questioning what really divides people.
A key theme of the film is the effect of war on young men. Though we discover little about Gary’s home-life, he and his brother seem to have been raised in a care-home, and there is no mention of their parents, so they must look after each other. Lost and disoriented in Belfast, Gary is reduced to such a level of innocent immaturity and solitude that he ends up being led around the city by a child who, while scarily hardy to violence and street-life, is also endearingly still young enough to be impressed at meeting a soldier.
Gary’s most direct Irish counterpart is a young man of similar age called Sean – masterfully portrayed in a truly chilling turn by Barry Keoghan – who is affected by events of the war just as tragically as Gary, linking them by age even though their decisions are very different.
In an ensemble of great performances – Sean Harris is very powerful, to name just one – Jack O’Connell, combining the emotion he showed in TV drama United with the gritty determination from last year’s Starred Up, elevates the character of Gary Hook and enables him to hold centre-screen throughout. It is a role that doesn’t involve much dialogue, because Hook is often either alone or hiding his accent from those around him. However, frequent close-ups of O’Connell reveal a fantastic range of facial and bodily expressions that build a fantastically nuanced character without the need for many words.
Some scenes of prolonged rioting can feel almost too much like real footage to fit in with the rest of the film, and the conclusion of Gary and Sean’s story arc is perhaps a little predictable, but these are small grievances.
’71 does everything it needs to and more to create a thriller that seldom loosens its grip on the audience and is also a worthy war film, combining some of the moody build-up of wartime landscape of Apocalypse Now with the documentary-like immersion of The Hurt Locker to offer a new perspective on war and the life of young soldiers in an army that claims to “look after their own” but falls short of the needs of many.