The complexities of the Troubles in Northern Ireland have long been a difficult era in British history to replicate on the big screen. Certain efforts have been more moving than others, whilst some have been downright incendiary – with Belfast often reduced to an urban warzone decimated by bombs and ingrained hatred. Yann Demange’s ’71 (2014) attempts to occupy the areas of grey in this ideological battle, breaking free of specifics by witnessing the Troubles through the eyes of naïve soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), a young English recruit from Derbyshire who’s been sent to the Northern Irish capital to help keep the peace.
Comforted by the fact that he’s “not even leaving the country”, Hook enters Belfast with a false sense of security and empowerment. His first time out on patrol sees him aiding with a house raid in a staunchly republican area. Enraged housewives bash dustbin lids on the pavement to alert the local community of the nearby British presence and Hook suddenly finds himself caught in the midst of a riot. As the brawl becomes more intense, a young boy steals Hook’s rifle and, after chasing him through the streets, our protagonist soon finds himself separated from his regiment. Lost within an urban jungle of extremist ideology – where friend is indistinguishable from foe – the frightened young cadet is forced to fend for himself.
Demange begins commendably by making a pertinent comment about the British involvement in Northern Ireland, seemingly intent on presenting an even-handed depiction of the Troubles. This commitment to realism sadly dissipates, however, once Hook finds himself alone, deep behind ‘enemy lines’. Instead of genuinely engaging with the complexities of this disquiet, we become privy to a series of high-octane parlour games that turn the events into little more than a cheap game of cat and mouse. The Troubles remain a difficult subject to capture, of course, as there’s no clear delineation between good and bad. And yet, unlike Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2006) – which managed to communicate the hopelessness of a war fraught with both sectarianism and political intricacies – ’71 is too overly embellished with the vigour of an action movie.
Eventually transforming the conflict into a series of formulaic, if suspenseful set-pieces, this Demange’s somewhat belligerent approach is ultimately trading off genuine hurt and horror for mere cinematic thrills. Constructed around the same televised images of chaos that have for too long now informed our knowledge of events, ’71 trivialises the troubles for pure entertainment purposes. Demange’s indolent attempts to comment on the period with some form of moral scrupulousness, whilst instantaneously pillaging the subject for recreational delights, sadly culminates in yet another clichéd on screen depiction of Belfast. Despite its early promise, solid performances and high production values, this is yet another drama that broaches the Troubles with patronisingly empathic platitudes.
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