Yann Demange has cut his directorial teeth by working on a variety of TV shows in the UK, ranging from ITV’s Secret Diary Of A Call Girl to Charlie Brooker’s post-modern zombie series Dead Set, but his best small screen work to date is the excellent Top Boy, a 2011 miniseries about gang life set in inner city London. Top Boy is arguably one of the best – if not the best – British shows of recent years, and his debut feature film, the muscular, tough ’71, is a similarly gritty thriller that is also set in a sprawling and even-more-unforgiving concrete landscape.
‘71 takes place a generation ago and a world away from the council estates of East London, concentrating mainly on a single 24-hour period during one of the years in which the conflict in Northern Ireland (widely referred to as ‘The Troubles’) was at its most brutal. Despite years of conflict beforehand, in the early 1970s there was an explosion of political violence in the country as the unionists and loyalists – who generally wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom – clashed with Irish nationalists and republicans, who wanted to see a united Ireland. Participating in the events were republican paramilitaries (such as the Provisional IRA), loyalist paramilitaries (such as the UVF and the UDA), the Royal Ulster Constabulary (Northern Ireland’s police force), the British Army, political activists and, naturally, a number of high-profile politicians. In Belfast the fighting was at its heaviest, with roads often acting as dividing lines that generally separated opposing communities, and it is this city in turmoil – with its burning vehicles and divided residents and highly-charged flashpoints – that serves as the backdrop to Demange’s film.
As a politically-neutral Londoner who was born in France, Demange does not seek to offer an explanation, a potted history or an in-depth analysis of The Troubles, and is fully aware of his position as an outsider. This tense debut follows a young English soldier who is caught ‘behind enemy lines’ one evening and must try to survive until he is located by his fellow officers. The critic Mark Kermode has pointed out that ’71 owes more to Walter Hill’s The Warriors and John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 than it does to the likes of Jim Sheridan’s In The Name Of The Father or the gripping Paul Greengrass film Bloody Sunday, and this is actually a straightforward and engrossing thriller, though it doesn’t completely ignore or shy away from the issues associated with the setting and the conflict: in fact it paints a depressing picture of the chain-of-command structure, duplicity, betrayal and in-fighting on both sides.
The soldier in question is Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), a young Private who leaves his hometown of Derby when his freshly-minted regiment is deployed in Belfast on an ‘emergency basis’. His new commanding officer in the city is Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid), a similarly inexperienced but well-meaning officer whose upper class upbringing is suggested as the reason for his higher ranking. While out providing support to the RUC, who are viewed in one scene aggressively carrying out door-to-door searches for paramilitary weaponry, tension on the street rises and Hook is separated from the rest of his ill-prepared regiment during a riot. Screenwriter Gregory Burke seemingly draws from the Falls curfew of July 1970, when a similar house search for weapons turned into a three day pitched-battle between the British Army and the IRA that only ended when 3,000 women and children from Andersonstown marched into the curfew zone with food and groceries for the locals.
With the violence escalating around him, the young soldier must escape on foot through unfamiliar streets and shelled-out houses, pursued by young gunmen associated with the Provisional IRA in one of the most exhilarating chase scenes I have seen in some time. After he gives them the slip Hook is lost and alone, and must survive the night in the badly-lit city estates while the gunmen and the army search for him, relying on the kindness of strangers and his own luck as much as any training he has received. Leading the search for the British Army is Sandy Browning (Sean Harris, impressive), a cold, hardened undercover officer with an apparently untrustworthy team in tow, but the rescue mission is difficult as Hook is forced to constantly stay on the move despite the fact he has sustained serious injuries.
Demange has made a taut, gripping thriller, and his assured handling of the action here is as impressive as his ability to coax good performances from all of his actors. There are some startling sequences in ’71 that hold your attention and reveal Demange’s talent: as well as the aforementioned chase on foot, there’s a disorienting sequence set at night following an explosion in a Protestant neighbourhood, and a well-judged slow-burning but violent final act in which Hook and those looking for him converge on a giant block of flats in a heavily-nationalist area.
O’Connell delivers a very good performance as the vulnerable soldier at the centre of the story who must fight for his own survival. When asked whether he is Catholic or Protestant by a young loyalist boy the naïve Private tells him that he ‘doesn’t know’, much to the kid’s amusement, and Hook is generally confused and silent throughout much of the film. The point being made here is that this man is simply there doing a job, he is someone else’s pawn, and knows very little about the conflict or its history. Hook is no hero, just a lad from Derby who is left to fight on the streets while his superiors enjoy relative comfort in their barracks, and interestingly there is a connection made between the English soldier and an eager young paramilitary wannabe named Sean (Barry Keoghan), who is out to impress the (slightly) older men running the Provisional IRA.
’71 details the failings of all of the factions that are directly opposing each other in this conflict, with Demange refusing to paint a rosy or romantic picture of any of them; the film’s critical tone is best summed up by one character who notes that the Army is just ‘rich c***s telling dumb c***s to kill poor c***s’, though anyone tempted to suggest that this is an unfair attack on the British military should note that shortly thereafter we see senior members of the Official and Provisional IRA plotting against each other. Demange and Burke understandably try to keep things balanced throughout, although one could argue that the fact the lead character is portrayed sympathetically, as an innocent young man, will possibly draw hoots of derision from some Belfast residents with long memories.
While it’s not for me to say whether it’s an authentic representation of early 1970s Belfast or not, ’71 is a compelling war film that wisely recognises the complexity of its subject matter without lecturing or seeking to apportion blame or point out clearly-defined rights and wrongs, although it does have its say on safer topics such as the ingrained class system in the military as well as the Army’s predilection for covering its own arse when things go wrong. The moody, downbeat score by David Holmes perfectly complements the visuals, it contains some fine acting performances and Demange has cemented his reputation here as a talented up-and-coming director. It suffers a little from a sentimental epilogue but otherwise ’71 is a fine, engrossing film.
Directed by: Yann Demange
Written by: Gregory Burke
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris, Sam Reid, Charlie Murphy, David Wilmot, Barry Keoghan
Running Time: 99 minutes