"They don't care about you. You're just a piece of meat to them."
Britain still bears the scars of The Troubles. It’s a sensitive subject that can still lead to hot disputes today, we’re still recovering, and many believe that we always will be. In terms of films, well until now it’s been a subject that no one has dared to go to. With good reason, it’s not simply a case of right and wrong, but it’s not even a case of perspective either, opinion will just be divided wherever you go and they are strong opinions. But the crucial part of that sentence was ‘until now’.
At the height of The Troubles the British Army is sent to maintain order. Gary Hook is one of many young British soldiers sent to Belfast, during a riot he becomes stranded in an extremely hostile estate. With the line between friend and foe warped he has to navigate his way out of danger through a foreign landscape surrounded by members of the IRA.
This is not something like the Vietnam War, generally held in a similar view of being a tragedy that one massive military force blundered into. But the Troubles have no specific or general view. Any attempt at capturing this on the screen would be a daunting one to say the least. But the writing and direction of ’71 manages to perfectly capture the different atmospheres of this environment. A city divided purely by the lines of Protestantism and Catholicism, between the Loyalists and the Republicans.
The perspective through which this scenario is captured manages to give urgency and remembrance at the same time, much like the best war films. The thrilling aspects grab you right from the start, and do not let go. Nearly everything is presented beautifully, the pacing and action, as well as a spectacular direction that really elevates the film to unprecedented heights. It allows the viewer to rest now and then, but not long enough to recover completely. So when the horror returns the tension is still present. Normally this may be a negative element, but here it proves to be a brilliant asset, this is a no-holds-bar thriller. You want to be relaxed, go and see some romantic comedy.
This ensemble cast is superb, but the most valuable player, by a long way, has to be Jack O’Connell in the lead role. It’s through his eyes that we witness the destruction, going from a peaceful suburbia to an environment with the same outline, but different fillings. He’s wounded and scared, remaining silent for long portions, yet somehow he can easily convey the emotional turmoil he’s going through. It is eloquently enthralling from start to finish. There’s no overconfidence in his violent speech patterns or actions, you just get the sense of his will to survive.
A riveting music score only emphasises all that O’Connell and director Yann Demange work to achieve in the film. If there is a flaw it could be from the fact that occasionally it delves too deeply into the thriller genre, after all this is about a genuine tragedy, one that still exists very firmly in human memory. Like I said before it does very well to remember the gravity and full severity of these events, but a little more would create the perfect film.
It also cannot help but take sides slightly. I’m not saying that there is a correct side to take. But the very best films of this tone remain more impartial, you do not see Francis Ford Coppla pop up in the middle of Apocalypse Now and shout ‘war is bad’, or ‘war is good’. That certainly is not the case here, but if you look a bit deeper, you begin to notice a slight biased.
But this is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year for me.It succeeds in looking at the politics of war just as much as the actual gunfire. By recreating the conflict instead of dramatizing or emphasising it, the film manages to put itself on par with great suburban war films like Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. It really is that good.