Film Review: ’71

Like a lot of people I have an indifferent relationship with The Troubles in Northern Ireland. They didn’t directly affect me, after all, while close they were still happening in a different country and my relationship and knowledge to them is born out the media portrayal. Imagery more powerful than fact, with the depiction of guns, poverty and painted murals used to shape my opinion rather than reasoned debate and learned understanding.

I’d heard very good things about ’71. Both as a film and as a performance by lead Jack O’Connell. Set on the mean streets of Belfast directly at the height of The Troubles, it is a film that is collectively lauded by critics. Most shouting from the roof tops about how director Yann Demange has so graphically managed to turn the residential streets of Belfast into a full, and inhumane, war zone.

Jack O'Connell - 71

I totally agree with this idea. The film really does feel as though it is set directly on the abandon front line of a battle and not, streets still inhabited and sustaining to daily life. But while visually it is striking, I found that it actually harmed the movie as well. It feels too removed from the people and the natural rhythm of life to be acceptable in it’s setting. You actually forget that it is Belfast. I do wonder if this sensation is purely because I don’t actually know how accurate the setting is. I have never even visited Belfast, let alone understand how the streets deserted at night during the fighting, and so I don’t know if this is actually how life survived or whether this is a cinematic tool designed to help tell the story.

There have been comparisons made between 71 and Black Hawk Down. Both films about soldiers lost behind enemy lines, so to speak, and the hunt to get them back. And while I think that it is a far comparison to make, this film towers head an shoulders above Black Hawk Down because this story feels real. It’s gritty and dirty, and bloody. It feels tough and because it wants to look at the hunt rather than the setting, it blends quickly into a generic game of cat and mouse. A maze of terror and tension against the clock. And the further the story drops away from Belfast and it’s religious division and focuses more and more on O’Connell’s character the more the story really gets underneath your skin and the more you start to feel every drip of sweat and moment of panic he goes through. Something Black Hawk Down never managed to achieve.

Jack O'Connell - Unbroken

’71 sits in the middle of O’Connell’s recent rise to prominence following Starred Up and preceding Unbroken and his performance is stunning and gritty and real. You don’t for one moment connect him to any other character or performance. His talent is obvious while his face is still unknown and therefore, you get a true honest performance not overshadow or impacted by anything that’s gone before.

While there are lots of like and lots to question, I can find some fundamental issues with the film though. There is a typical Hollywood “gun fight”, by which I mean that during one sequence a character appears to have a gun that never runs out of bullets! And yet is never reloaded either? Sadly, it’s really noticeable due to the rapid succession of shots fired, and it served to distract from what should be an anxious and tense scene.

My other problem, and this may sound hypocritical, is the setting. While the story works, and gets under you skin, keeps you interested and guessing, it could also be set anywhere. They never actually stop to analyse the characters or discuss their motives. It doesn’t even bother to explain why this hunt is happening. Why one soldier behind apparent enemy lines is such a target. Or even why their are enemy lines in the first place. I appreciate that it wants to stay away from a potentially difficult subject of the religious divide, but it takes it too far and it means you never really feel you know the characters. It’s almost as if you never get to see the whites of their eyes. They are just death hiding in the shadows.

Barry Keoghan - 71

And that sense of detachment to so much that is so important annoyed me because as a film it’s a seriously impressive piece of storytelling. It had my heart pounding, my body trembling, my nerves on edge and I didn’t know how things would turn out or who you could really trust. I just wanted to know why I felt this way.

There is so much to like about ’71, it really is a cracking portrayal of the emotions involved in a fatal man hunt. But it’s also left me feeling slightly cheated because it’s plot is so simple that you could easily drop it into any war zone in any period and result in the same film. I almost think that Belfast has been “picked” purely because setting it in Iraq or Afghanistan would be too predictable and obvious. But don’t let it’s almost redundant setting put you off, because it’s power is in the connection you make with it emotionally rather than anything narratively visual.

9 out of 10 stars (9 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Film First Edition

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