Setting your debut feature amidst the provocative milieu of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland is a brave gambit, particularly placing it in a period as infamously tumultuous and bloody as Yann Demange’s ’71 (2014). Occurring in the year that the first British soldiers were killed by the IRA, it’s a pulsating chase through the mean streets of Belfast for a squaddie separated from his comrades. Starring an array of British and Irish talent including Jack O’Connell, Richard Dormer, Sean Harris and Killian Scott, ’71 is a pulse-raising actioner that stumbles a little in navigating the typically hazardous political terrain. Gary Hook (O’Connell) is a raw army recruit, hurled from mud-sodden obstacle courses to the Northern Irish capital.
Their commanding officer (Sam Reid) is as wet behind the ears as his charges, and whilst providing support for a police raid, the unit finds itself faced with an escalating riot between red-brick terraces. A soldier’s rifle is nabbed by a young boy and when Hook gives chase he becomes separated from his comrades. Firmly in genre territory, Hook is a man on the run in a part of town where his uniform will get him killed – he’s behind enemy lines with no one to trust. The tension is painstakingly ratcheted as Hook’s company arrive fresh-faced in Belfast and are then thrown into a disorientating melee on the city streets. Aggressive police are behind them and an angry mob in front, building a tangible sense of impending violence which explodes into Hook running for his life through hostile back alleys while bullets whistle past his fragile skull.
O’Connell proves an unusual lead – his soldier is a passive protagonist, heightening the sense of danger rather than the generic turning of the tables. Far from the idyll of playing football in the sun with his adoring sibling – the sole early nod to any real characterisation – this is a plunge into hell for Hook. Belfast is reduced to rubble and the stakes are raised as the sun sets over marauding gangs of militia and the burning cars that litter every street corner. Demange has spoken of how the script, when he first read it, transcended the specificity of Northern Ireland, and it is arguably due to this feeling that the film begins to flag after a blistering opening. When the focus is solely on Stygian nightmare, this out-and-out genre piece works really well, but as the action wears on the scope expands, and the politics never quite coalesce. The labyrinthine accords and back-channel affiliations are neither substantial enough to comment on the murky allegiances of the time, or well-drawn enough to offer anything but the most simplistic context for audiences without prior knowledge. As such, ’71’s incendiary setting ultimately hamstrings the plot machinations and undermines its sensory opening third.
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