This is my review of ‘71 [DVD].
Based on the real tragic and messy situation of 1971 Belfast, this is a tense and gripping thriller, well-filmed, with an evocative score and some excellent acting, in particular from the leading player Jack O’Connell.
Having barely finished his gruelling army training, Gary Hook is sent to Belfast as one of a unit of inexperienced young soldiers, out of their depth in peace-keeping exercises which rapidly prove to be grim urban guerrilla warfare. Against a backdrop of burning cars and housewives banging dustbin lids on the pavement in a tribal rhythm, we see the soldiers struggle to hold back a hoard of furious civilians, spitting abuse and hurling stones as they see their neighbours beaten up by RUC men, whom the army has been ordered to defend. In the mêlée, Hook becomes separated from his colleagues and is left behind, menaced from two sides by an out-of-control faction of young IRA fighters who want a soldier’s scalp, and the sinister Military Reaction Force (which was created in 1971), supposedly deployed to use their local knowledge to help the Brits, but in fact running double agents in murky, shifting partnerships about which Hook may inadvertently have learned too much. We gain a keen sense of Hook’s will to survive, his confusion when injured yet without losing basic compassion for the weak and vulnerable, and the growing realisation that fighting in the army is not what it has been cracked up to be – not, as he had perhaps thought, a promising break for a lad brought up in a children’s home. Right up to the end, you know that the director is prepared to show how the essentially good, as represented by Hook, may not escape into a happy ending.
The identity of the various factions is a little hard to work out during the film, particularly for those who cannot remember the Irish troubles of the 70s, but it is a powerful reminder of a period we should not forget.