REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media
“71” is a historical military drama, which is set in the titular year of 1971 as England was enmeshed in the ongoing battles, being waged in Northern Ireland.
“71” plunges the viewer into the action without providing much in the way of historical context. Starting in the late ’60s, an ethnonationalist conflict arose in Northern Ireland. “The Troubles” pitted two civilian groups against one another in an ongoing dispute. Irish nationalists, who were predominantly Catholic, sought to leave the United Kingdom and join their southern neighbor, the Republic of Ireland. However, Unionists, mostly Protestant, wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. Each side organized paramilitary entities, which fought one another for three decades. British troops were deployed in support of the Unionist supporters. Only with the signing of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in 1998 did the hostilities finally subside.
As the film opens, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is a raw, teenaged recruit in the British army. He and his comrades are shown engaged in a rigorous basic training. exercise.
“71” takes a brief detour as Gary visits a young boy, Darren (Harry Verity). Like much of the film, the viewer is left to interpret the visual text. It appears that the boy is Gary’s younger brother and has been relegated to living in a bleak orphanage. Gary himself apparently grew up there as well. The vignette establishes the protagonist as civilian, who is incidentally in the army.
Gary and his comrades are awaiting a relatively cushy assignment in Germany. However, they are advised that because of emergency circumstances, they will instead be sent to Belfast, a hotbed of insurrection in Northern Ireland. They are saddled with an inexperienced and naïve commanding officer, Lieutenant Armitage (Sam Reid). The unit are deployed to provide backup for the Royal Ulster Constabulary as these policemen inspect homes, looking for contraband weapons.
As soon as the squad arrives, they are greeted by total chaos. Civilians bang trash can lids on the sidewalk, creating a cacophonous din. Alerted to the invasive inspection, an agitated crowd arrives at the scene to protest. Gary appears shocked by the rough treatment of the resident civilians. The soldiers are pelted by a fusillade of rocks and bags full of excrement. Although the outnumbered soldiers are heavily armed, they are barred from using their weaponry against the civilian crowd.
Somehow, a young boy manages to snatch an automatic rifle from one of the soldiers, then flee away. Gary and a fellow soldier, Thommo (Jack Lowden) are ordered to chase after the boy and recover the purloined weapon.
As the situation spins wildly out of control, Lieutenant Armitage’s squad retreats. In the confusion, they lose track of the fact that Gary and Thommo have become detached from the unit.
Meanwhile, Gary and Thommo are surrounded, then attacked by civilians, who savagely beat them. Suddenly, a brave woman intercedes on their behalf and disperses her neighbors by the sheer force of her verbal indignation. Her seemingly effective efforts are trumped by a Republican gunman, who shoots Thommo in the head at point blank range.
Gary is left alone, stranded behind enemy lines, surrounded by hostile forces. What chance does he have to survive? How can he determine the allegiances of those he encounters?
The situation is complicated by the covert actions of the Military Reaction Force, a counter-insurgency unit of the British Army. They are under the command of Captain Browning (Sean Harris). He has an unclear agenda and engages in a series of unscrupulous actions.
Despite his terse dialogue, Jack O’Connell manages to capture his character’s emotional turmoil. O’Connell provided a stunning lead performance in the under seen prison drama, “Starred Up.” In it, he exuded an unmistakable kinetic energy. O’Connell was then wasted in “Unbroken.” This film offers another showcase for O’Connell to display his skill as an actor.
The other cast members provide naturalistic performances. Corey McKinley deserves particular kudos for his memorable portrayal of a potty-mouthed, pre-teen Loyalist.
Screenwriter, Gregory Burke, previously penned the award-winning stage play, “Black Watch.” Here, Burke is more focused on the internal psychology of the protagonist than insisting upon the rectitude of either side’s position.
In his debut feature film, Yann Demange displays considerable promise as a director. He adroitly orchestrates a series of complicated scenes, while infusing “71” with dramatic tension. Demange employs an impressionistic rather than a literal approach. This enhances the viewer’s appreciation of the protagonist’s sense of disorientation, but leaves them similarly confused by what is going on.
Most military dramas celebrate war as an inherently moral and ennobling experience. By contrast, “71” is a gripping military drama, which depicts the folly of armed conflict.
*** R (for strong violence, disturbing images, and language throughout) 99 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 299 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lerner firstname.lastname@example.org.