Outside of an obnoxious exploitation of shaky cam technique to elevate conflict, Yann Demange’s concise and engaging slice of history barrels through its no-frills narrative with considerable gusto. Thrusting unassuming British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) into the grasp of the IRA’s titularly set stranglehold on Belfast, Northern Ireland, things go tits-up for him and his own when a native-incited riot escalates. Abandoned behind enemy lines shortly thereafter, Gary is left battered, disoriented and without devices necessary for survival. Finding solace in the kindness of not many a stranger, his resolve wears thin as the plot thickens and the hunt for the young Brit by opposing parties becomes increasingly dire.
’71‘s strengths are exercised best via its steadfast and downscaled focus. In employing attitudes, beliefs and frequent occurrences coinciding with the post-’69 IRA split, Gregory Burke’s script imbues the proceedings with an admirably personal feel. While the struggle for all involved is palpably wide-reaching and ever-present, this remains more affecting as a straightforward drama than it would a partial history lesson.
Several parties are involved – one good, one bad, one questionable – and all are easy to read amid pulse-pounding foot chases through the war-torn slums of Belfast. Remaining appealingly devoid of convolution, palpable tension remains front-and-center as Gary’s safety is threatened at every turn by the foolhardy youths who don’t fully understand what they’re fighting for. Even though semi-archetypal characters, motives and shock value exist to solicit an assumed emotional response from viewers, nothing is thematically ham-fisted or particularly overwrought.
Although I’m partially biased based on my fascination with this time and place, ’71 is still a solid film mostly bereft of beginner’s mistakes. Bobbing and weaving through a concise timeline much like Gary Hook himself through dilapidated alleyways and tenements, Yann Demange’s feature debut is one of poise and worthy of praise. The action enthralls despite a rough-and-tumble overabundance of handheld pratfalls, and above all, everything meshes satisfyingly enough to create a tense and well-acted whole further elevated by an agreeably compelling sect of European history.