Who can he trust? Who should he fear?
Those are questions of life and death importance to Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), a young British army private lost and on the run through the dark alleys and rubble-strewn streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland, in “ ’71.”
The movie’s title is the year in which the picture takes place, a year when the sectarian bloodshed, known as “The Troubles,” was particularly intense.
The feature directorial debut of filmmaker Yann Demange (French-born but raised in London), “ ’71,” is a rough-edged nail-biter that often leaves the viewer feeling as confused disoriented as its besieged main character. That’s by design. Demange is never less than fully in control of his material, and keeping the audience off-balance is his way of building his tale’s tension to nearly unbearable levels.
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His picture is not all that concerned with the politics behind The Troubles. There is only a brief scene in which Gary’s commanding officer briefs his troops on the situation where the soldiers will be patrolling. “This is the front line, boys: Catholics and Protestants, living side-by-side, at each other’s throats.” Their job is to try to keep the two sides from killing each other.
The Catholics hate the Brits’ guts, viewing them as an occupying force allied with the Protestants. Gary and his mates are pelted by stones and other objects thrown by jeering Catholic kids. Adults view them with hatred, and when the hatred ignites into a riot, Gary gets separated from his unit. From that point on, he becomes the quarry of IRA gunmen intent on killing him.
But because the warring sides are so intermingled, there also are Protestants in the area who might be able to help him. But he has no way of knowing who, or where, they are.
The situation is even more complicated than that. The IRA side has been infiltrated by British army undercover operatives. And the IRA has men who have infiltrated the Protestant side. All are hard-eyed killers.
Gary has virtually no knowledge of any of that. Working from a script by Gregory Burke, Demange makes it clear that Gary has very little understanding of the larger picture or exactly what he and his mates are supposed to be doing in the war zone.
A stranger in a strange land is what he is, fed into the meat grinder with inadequate preparation for what he’ll be facing. But as he remarks at one point, the strange land is almost like home. “I’m not even leaving the country,” he says before he’s deployed. His remark is to a young boy who is apparently his son — or maybe his brother. The picture doesn’t make the relationship clear. Ambiguity starts early in “ ’71” and deepens quickly.
Gary is hunted, and among his hunters are youths even younger than himself. He’s befriended, but by people whose motives are suspect. Uncertainty is everywhere, as are people looking to shoot him on sight. It’s urban combat of the most confusing and brutal kind, and the resonances with similar situations during the U.S. war in Iraq are unmistakable, with friend and foe difficult to differentiate.
O’Connell embodies Gary’s vulnerability and confusion with superlative effectiveness. Racing through the picture, and later staggering after Gary has been badly wounded, O’Connell makes the audience care deeply about the character and his terrible plight.