Director: Yann Demange
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris, Sam Reid, Martin McCann, Paul Anderson, Killian Scott, Richard Dormer
Plot: 1971. The British send a regiment to Belfast to break up the riots between the Protestants and the Catholics, accidentally abandoning one of their own (O’Connell) in enemy territory.
I was a little worried coming into this movie, because I am from a family that are part British, half Irish, meaning that the events of 1971 are quite important to my personal culture. Hearing that 1971 was a cross between a historical dissection of the conflicts at that time, but also a pulse-pounding chase movie, I was worried that entertainment would get in the way and dehumanise their chosen villain, diluting the power of the story. However, thankfully, as this movie opens up, it is clear that Demange isn’t really bothered about judging any of the sides, merely using the moment in history as a template for his thriller. By the time, Jack O’Connell’s regiment gets into Belfast, the riots have been waging on far too long to remember who the good guys even are. The British wade in, trying to help matters, but are both ignorant and malicious, accidentally making the problem ten times worse. The Irish are driven to protesting in the streets, but their riots shift down a dangerous direction, especially when the younger rebels begin picking up guns and starting to fight back. In many ways, the situation has made everyone as bad as each other, so it never feels like Demange is pointing the finger at anyone. A clever line references O’Connell’s hometown rivalry between Derbyshire and Nottingham, that no one is sure why it even exists, echoing the situation ’71 finds itself in. The only thing that matters, once we have stripped the political context out of the picture, is a scared, young soldier, totally innocent when it comes to the brutality of his hierarchy, trapped in a street, weaponless, injured and being hunted down like cattle.
This movie was sold to me as a bit of an ensemble piece, strung together by its performances, but I never got that impression. Demange doesn’t seem like the kind of director that is bothered about giving the actors a platform to act from. This isn’t a criticism; the direction simply focuses more on story and setting, than lingering on an actor, as they project their emotions across for the audience to see. I do agree that Jack O’Connell is fantastic though. His character says very little, meaning that O’Connell needs to physically impress us. This isn’t a problem for the actor, as this is his strong suit. I love the way the actor handles the closing scenes, as he has to keep his military composure, while handling some dark issues. It helps that O’Connell is used to playing hard men, who talk with their fists at the drop of a hat. O’Connell always seems on the verge of punching someone, but his training helps him bite back on that. He remains silent and still, yet his eyes constantly flash with menace. At the same time, O’Connell lets the audience seem him at his most helpless. He is surprisingly good at stepping away from the action hero we assume he is going to be in ’71 and goes for a more helpless, lost boy, out of his league. He feels more like the main character in a horror movie than a war film.
Sadly, ’71 is more intelligent than it is good. It keeps hinting that it is going to erupt into a Raid-esque action at any moment. It keeps breaking from the drama and becoming an intense chase movie. As soon as the first death violently and unexpectedly flashes up, we are treated to five minutes of exhilarating action (although slightly too dependent on shaky-cam, if I was to start nit-picking). Sadly, the movie keeps slowing down, stopping it from being that sort of entertaining ride. It jumps to too many supporting characters. Because Demange’s style is too realistic and natural to let the actors have moments to shine, few characters become anything more than background figures, even if a few of them are quite interesting. I could have done without the sub-plot featuring the undercover, rogue spies, although I guess if the only bad guys were Irish, I would have to revoke my compliment about no finger-pointing. Character arcs are tied up nicely and cleverly, but you want Demange to do something exciting, rather than thoughtful. By the end of the movie, O’Connell becomes a Macguffin in his own movie, and more of a perspective for the audience, rather than a character in his own right. It makes the opening with his little brother (or son? Was that made clear?), feel pointless and unnecessary. It makes the cool action moments feel a little more frustrating. If we had more moments like the shock ending to the pub scene, ’71 could have been underdog movie of the year.
Final Verdict: Some might like the slower, thoughtful approach, but personally I feel this cuts back on ‘71’s potential. Good, interesting, but not one for the memory.