‘71’s immerses viewers into an intense, penetrating mindset; but what makes the movie unique is how it constantly reminds us of the film’s violent setting without losing focus on the plot.
Jack O’Connell of Unbroken and Starred Up fame shows masterful restraint in portraying British soldier Gary Hook. Hook is stationed in 1971 Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the army is mediating a violent uprising between Irish Loyalists (Protestants) and Republicans (Catholics). Hook is forced to run for his life after a weapons house raid goes awry, and he and another soldier are left behind enemy lines. O’Connell’s performance is a subtle mixture of brutishness, vulnerability and intensity. He never oversells his emotions, using facial expression with spare dialogue to show viewers what he’s thinking.
In between the moments of running and pursuit, screenwriter Gregory Burke puts a pause on the action to illustrate the impoverished state of Belfast and the effects of the three-decade long Irish war. Hook walks down dark alleys as wide shots of the city landscape reveal burning buildings and the destitution surrounding the city’s inhabitants. But these shots don’t seem emotionally manipulative, as the music score isn’t overpowering, nor are the shots held for a particularly long time. Director Yann Demange simply lets the visuals speak for themselves.
Also well-used shaky camera work shows the chaotic divide within Belfast and unlike films such as Cloverfield, the audience doesn’t get lost in the pandemonium. Viewers always know where they are, though they may not know why something is happening.
But while excessive plot isn’t needed to push the film along, a little more detail would have been nice, just to unravel the motive of certain characters and clear up any confusion. As Hook runs from his pursuers, the audience isn’t completely aware of who is double-crossing who, and what each person is supposed to be in relation to the religious conflict.
But this lack of information also works in the film’s favor as ’71 doesn’t take a political side – The British Army, demonstrated by its ranking officer, seem naïve and out of touch, while the rioters and Republican supporters are violent (some killers). With the film’s ambiguous political take, the audience is left to focus on Hook and his survival.
However there are one or two scenes that simply don’t work. When an agent (it’s confusing who he works for) reveals Hook’s dog tags, it’s unclear why the British officer doesn’t ask the agent how he came by them. Also when Hook is trudging down the streets of Belfast after being wounded, the shaky camera work seems more distracting than artful.
But in the end ‘71 chooses correctly in focusing on the plight of Hook and his interactions with the few people that help him. The young boy, that undoubtedly is a reminder of Hook’s brother, is a comical scene-stealer. And the father and daughter duo are convincing as complex characters also trying to survive in the ravaged streets of Belfast. ‘71 doesn’t use these moments of contact as sentimental ploys, but as multifaceted aspects as to what happens when people socialize with a “wanted man.”
The film is subtle in everything it does. It never pushes the envelope in any way that is overtly direct, but in doing so everything seems more authentic. The human struggles are not overpowering and are equally distributed. ‘71’s ability to refrain from exaggeration or from stressing atrocity actual makes it extraordinary.