’71 Review

Posted: March 8, 2014 in 2014 Berlinale, Action, Drama, Reviews
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ImageThe familiar story of the soldier trapped behind enemy lines, who against all odds must somehow traverse hostile territory, while outwitting and outfighting those bent on capturing or killing him, continues to be the basis for films for one simple reason: it works.

The twist in ’71, a UK entry seen in the 64th Berlinale Film Festival competition in February, is that the setting is something less than war, yet somehow more terrifying. Director Yann Demange sets his first feature in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1971, when sectarian violence was spiraling out of control and the growing number of British troops being introduced were adding gasoline to the fire.

All war is ultimately hell, but for the soldiers deployed at the beginning of ’71, first contact is more like being on the receiving end of a particularly nasty prank. The troops are pelted with bags of urine and feces upon arrival in a republican neighborhood to support a police action. As the crowd grows in size and worsens in disposition, rocks begin to fly, a soldier loses his rifle, and raw recruit Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) gives chase. Within moments, the implacable hatred at the center of the conflict is presented in one shocking, violent act. Hook is then separated from his comrades and left to find his way back to the “safe” side of the city.

Director Demange handles the action better than the politics. Hook careens from city block to city block, unsure of the affiliation of any neighborhood or the danger or sanctuary each individual he encounters represents. There is a memorable performance by Corey McKinley, playing a cock of the walk prepubescent boy who takes the British soldier under his wing for a spell, and the rest of the supporting cast is solid as well.

The story attempts even-handedness in framing the conflict, with the British soldier as hero being balanced by duplicitous British intelligence forces and good nationalists.  Trying to reconcile this shades of grey approach with resolving the question of whether the good guy escapes the villains makes for a somewhat fatuous conclusion to the white knuckle pursuit of Hook, when he is finally cornered in a republican stronghold.  Demange and screenwriter Gregory Burke also stumble with an unnecessary subplot that has Hook visiting his younger brother in an orphanage before he ships out for Belfast.

Hook is Everyman when he is trying to stay alive and get back home, and he does not need an orphan brother, or elderly mother, or tender sweetheart, or any other device for motivation.  Neither does the audience. The overriding sense of self preservation O’Connell effectively displays in the lead role is enough for the viewer to be right there vicariously with every step through his longest night.

Three stars

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