Written by Gregory Burke
Directed by Yann Demange
In 1971, Northern Ireland was facing the height of the Troubles, a period where the people of that portion of the United Kingdom were in an all-out war with each other. These conflicts were based primarily on the divide between Catholic and Protestant but were based more on those who were loyal to the British throne and those who sought independence from the kingdom. The film ‘71 follows recruit Gary Hook who is thrown into the chaos of Northern Ireland with little understanding of the factions and nuance of relationships. He’s just there to do a job, supporting local police as they do residence searches for weapons caches. Things turn south quickly, and Gary finds himself trapped and wounded on the streets of Belfast. He’ll spend a night of terror, unsure of whom to trust and testing his mettle to survive.
‘71 captures the sense of things falling apart and the chaos that ensued in Belfast at this time. From the moment Gary and his unit are deployed on the streets, director Yann Demange starts ratcheting up the tension. The women, mostly housewives, are out pounding trash can lids on the sidewalk, a sight that unnerves both the soldiers and the audience as the director cleverly doesn’t give exposition to explain what is happening. We see the purpose, and it’s to call people out of their homes and fill the streets, creating a line of aggression against these intruders. Because most of the soldiers are so green we know mistakes are going to be made, you can read the terror on their faces.
There is little time spent on explaining what is going on, which is a double-sided coin. On the one hand, we don’t have clunky exposition trying to hammer out the two warring sides with unnatural dialogue that sounds like it’s from a textbook. In this way, we’re always caught up in the moment and focused on the humanity of the characters. However, if you aren’t familiar with the war in Northern Ireland, you can get lost fairly quickly in understanding who is against who in this extremely chaotic situation. Not explaining the sides does lend itself to the film’s theme of the emptiness of the violence people are inflicting on each other. Maybe there was once rhyme or reason for why these factions formed, but now people are just killing each other because the other person is on the other side. No tangible goals are laid out, but only people killing because that’s all they know now.
One of the highlights of ‘71 is the way it builds the setting. The streets are littered with burning cars, Gary has to weave through a dimly lit maze of alleys and corridors. Children are recruited into the violence, wielding guns, and hurling jar of their waste at approaching soldiers. While this is near fifty years in the past, it resembles those apocalyptic visions of an urban wasteland seen in film and literature. It’s hard to contemplate what day to day life would have been like for these people. In cities like Baghdad or in Jerusalem, these local war conditions are still happening.
‘71 is not a film that seeks to have the final word on the conflict in Northern Ireland but uses that time in history to meditate on violence and the way younger generations are urged to join in the bloody fray. Gary’s future is nebulous in the closing scenes of the movie, and he is a marginalized person, an orphan who grew up in the care of the state. What he’s seen during his short time in the military doesn’t leave him feeling like he’s arrived in a safer place or that he can trust the people around him. The world is now an even uncertain dangerous landscape for Gary, and there’s little that he can do to change that fact.