Wow. Almost a lock, to be included in my 2015 Top Ten films of the year, “’71” is a harrowing Northern Island period actioner, set in Belfast at the height of “the Troubles” in 1971. It’s an almost unbearably tense movie, that also managed to break my heart on, at least, two occasions, with its melancholy focus on the bond between two brothers. Star Jack O’Connell made a bit of a splash here in 2014, portraying Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie’s Oscar-bait hit adaptation, “Unbroken”. I didn’t like that film very much, but O’Connell emerged unscathed. “’71” was actually playing the festival circuit in select cities before “Unbroken” made its official nationwide bow. “’71” finally got a limited official release here this past winter, and Yann Demange’s debut feature is easily the superior work.
Gary Hook (the excellent Mr. O’Connell) is a British Army soldier, and the caretaker of his adolescent brother, Darren. When his squad is sent to Belfast, during an extremely volatile period in Northern Ireland, he pledges to Darren that he will return. Thrown into the center of a city in a perpetual state of unrest, Hook, and his unit, search the Belfast homes for firearms, in an area where both Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Loyalists reside. The situation quickly rises to a head as a protest group of Catholics begin to provoke the British troops. Rapidly escalating out-of-control, Hook and a fellow soldier are separated from the squad. When his companion is executed, at point-blank range by a young Nationalist, Hook is on-the-run in an area of bomb-building freedom fighters, and gun-toting adolescents.
There are a few scenes of violence and carnage in this film, that almost make you want to turn away. Instead I remained transfixed and sobered by the depravity that fellow human beings are capable of inflicting on each other. I have some, but limited, understanding of the tumult in Belfast in the latter part of the 20th century. Would I call “71” realistic? Yeah…as far as my inexperienced eye can ascertain, sure. There are some wonderful naturalistic performances here, from actors like Richard Dormer as Eamon, Charlie Murphy as Brigid, and Killian Scott as James Quinn. The period flavor reeks of authenticity, and the chases and action sequences are expertly staged. All of it is aided by a fine, minimalist screenplay, by Scottish playwright Gregory Burke–making his feature film debut. “’71” is outright marvelous.