the british film industry never found a vietnam-like genre in northern ireland violence, perhaps because there was not the same sense of us and them: the republicans were never as distant and exotically anonymous as hollywood considered the viet cong to be. but this was traumatic, almost finished but not quite, could still prove a rich vein. Screenwriter Gregory Burke and first-time director Yann Demange have made a major motion picture debut with ’71, a behind-the-line war movie reeking of bad blood and bad faith, perhaps best described as an action-conspiracy thriller. Curiously, it is free of the tone that problem dramas traditionally assume: a tone that might be called tragic correctness.
the film is set in west belfast in the early years of the conflict, one year before bloody sunday; a time when northern ireland was still routinely referred to as “the province” on television news, as an outpost of the roman empire.
its central figure is played by jack o’connell, an excellent actor with the charisma of a young albert finney. he is gary, an english lad from derbyshire who has joined the parachute regiment, and may find the army the comforts of a replacement family. at the beginning of the decade, he is sent to belfast, where the army must participate in the fiction of simply being present to assist the civil police (the royal ulster police, as they were then called) in their duties, rather than directly imposing martial law.
A house-to-house search off the Falls Trail goes terribly wrong; The resulting confrontation sets off a riot situation in which his retreating unit leaves Gary behind. he finds himself in a no man’s land where the well-defined phrase “the enemy within” seems to apply to friend as well as foe. it is a world in which the authorities use high-level informants and supply weapons to loyal paramilitaries to maintain a deniable proxy war. Gary’s commanding officer, LT Armitage (Sam Reid), confronts the sneaky plainclothes intelligence operative Captain Browning (Sean Harris); And the provisional’s fiercely committed Haggerty (Martin McCann) and the broodingly deadpan Sean (Barry Keoghan) are plotting against their own bosses. Meanwhile, an ex-army medic on the Republican side may be Gary’s only chance: he’s Eamon, played by Richard Dormer (noted for his excellent portrayal of good-vibe punk music promoter Terri Hooley). p>
This is a tense thriller, with great action and pacing control, and an excellent recreation of the West Belfast war zone. there are moments of dry-as-dust comedy, such as when one member of a bomb-making crew asks another how he’s going to get up in the morning: after all, he won’t get his alarm clock back. For its biting chase sequence, Demange was likely influenced by Gerry Conlon’s riot scene at the beginning of Jim Sheridan’s In The Name of the Father (1993) and, of course, Paul Greengrass’s superlative Bloody Sunday (2002). But despite its pessimistic ending, and perhaps as a result of its 21st-century point of view, ’71 doesn’t have the usual movie devotion. It’s naturally different from Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), which is about another aspect of the Irish situation, but also very different from, say, Ken Loach’s (1990) hidden agenda. despite its obvious seriousness, this is closer to the cynicism of a straight police thriller. The concept of republican agents in the pay of British intelligence is reminiscent of James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer (2012), but the subject is presented with much more objectivity.
Where the film strikes a false note is at the beginning, when the paras are repeatedly told that they are not going abroad, that belfast is “in the uk” and that they “are not leaving the country”. I’m not sure it would have been explained that way: it’s an anachronism, born out of our more modern suspicion that the paramilitaries were encouraged to behave as if they were suppressing an uprising in a remote part of the empire. Today, with modern Belfast staging “black cab tours” of the former strongholds of anger, the world of ’71 seems a long way off. but as a drama, demange and burke make it seem very immediate and very real.