Theatrical feature directorial debuts don’t often come with more assurance than Yann Demange’s ’71 — a war thriller set in the year 1971 when “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland were at their height. But make no mistake, this isn’t really a film about “The Troubles” as such. If you go to ’71 hoping for some kind of enlightenment on that often perplexing nearly 30-year conflict between Catholics and Protestants, you’re not going to get it. That may be just as well. “The Troubles” is one of those things on which nearly everyone has an opinion, even if they know very little about it, and a movie isn’t likely to sort it out. Oh, yes, the more you know going in, the better you’ll understand the background, but none of that is really at the heart of Demange’s completely nonpartisan film. Unlike such movies as Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda (1990) and Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday (2002), this is not a political film in any real sense.
Essentially, ’71 is a day — hardly an average day — in the life of a newly arrived Brit soldier, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell). On his first day on the streets of Belfast, he’s in an army group sent out on a routine mission that turns into a riot, and in the confusion of it all, he’s left behind on the boundary between the Catholic and Protestant parts of the city. As a British soldier, he is — to put it mildly — unwelcome by the Catholics, but he quickly learns that the Protestant “Loyalists” are skeptical of him as well. In either case, no one wants much of anything to do with him — unless they want him dead. What Hook discovers is that he’s on his own in what can best be described as an escalating nightmare he can’t seem to escape. His wanderings only make things worse, because — whether fully comprehending it or not — he has seen things that make him a threat to everyone on both sides. He has learned the dangerous truth that nothing is what it seems and that what may appear an outrage by the IRA may well be something engineered to allow an excuse for a crackdown. It would be, frankly, more convenient if he didn’t make it through the night.
What interests Demange and first-time feature screenwriter Gregory Burke is a combination of the sheer terror of Hook’s plight and the amazingly convoluted relationships of the factions with all their duplicity and double crosses. It’s less about anything than it’s simply a Belfast-set take on the old Hitchcock gambit of the hapless man on the run who can’t trust anyone — foes or theoretical friends. Think of it as a gritty, lower-class variant of North By Northwest — minus romance and comedy — and you’re in the ballpark.
As filmmaking, it’s certainly exciting and accomplished, even though the ending gets too contrived for its own good. Demange keeps everything moving, and the danger is palpable every step of the way. Liverpool, Sheffield and Blackburn make acceptable stand-ins for Belfast (even though nothing but Belfast really looks like Belfast). The performances are solid with Jack O’Connell (Starred Up, Unbroken) continuing to be an impressive screen presence. Just remember this isn’t so much about “The Troubles” as it is like being uncomprehendingly dropped into the middle of them. Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images and language throughout.