From In the Name of the Father to Bloody Sunday to Hunger, there’s no shortage of films willing to engage the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but Yann Demange’s ’71 might be the closest the political subgenre has come to full-blown action cinema. Essentially an old-fashioned chase movie set against a turbulent political landscape, Demange’s feature synthesizes the speed and dynamism of early Kathryn Bigelow with a more obvious docu-drama approach to serious subjects—the kind of tastefully gritty craftsmanship that’s become the standard for conveying “realism” on film and television alike. But it’s the latter that proves to be the least effective aspect of the film.
Demange and screenwriter Gregory Burke pivot their narrative around Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell, of Starred Up and Unbroken), a young British soldier serving in a unit dispatched to Belfast. It’s 1971, and the civil unrest between warring Protestant and Catholic groups has reached a nearly apocalyptic level of conflict. Demange, production designer Chris Oddy, and DP Tat Radcliffe cook up a hell-on-earth tableaux not unlike Kubrick’s docklands Vietnam in Full Metal Jacket, sparing no flare, smoke plume, or pile of rubble to suggest a city perched on the edge of the abyss. The camera lingers to take in Hook’s eyes as he gets his first glimpse of it all. He’s just a young man who’s about to become the unlikely pawn in a conflict he barely understands.
When Hook goes missing in an early skirmish between British soldiers and Irish militants, he quickly becomes the subject of a manhunt that draws on multiple warring factions. There are IRA gunmen out to kill him, Her Majesty’s army is out to rescue him, and a shady British terror group—the Military Reaction Force—have him marked as an expendable element to be taken care of. On the run for his life, Hook goes from soldier to cipher, taking help—Protestant, Catholic, British—where he can get it. Demange is careful to take stock of Hook’s physical and mental degradation, using O’Connell’s expressively open face to sketch in the human toll of war.
’71’s narrative is lean, with a clear thematic thrust, but it seems of two minds as to how to present itself. The film’s early scenes of street battle in Belfast lean on the Paul Greengrass-style trope of handheld camera and aim for grim realism, but the technical craft of the sequence is undermined by a sense of the overly familiar—as though this is somehow the only acceptable way of conveying a harrowing political skirmish. By contrast, Hook’s flight through Belfast’s labyrinthine backstreets has a formal vigor that recalls Bigelow’s wild foot-chase in Point Break, and the excitement of the sequence makes the film pulse on a more immediate level. Similarly, the keen attention to industrial detail—spooky flashes of amber street light, smoky silhouettes, off-centre subjects in the frame—suggests Demange toyed with taking a Michael Mann route, that action-thriller sweet spot between the real and artifice.
The film’s uneasy deference to realist convention also surfaces in David Holmes’ hit-and-miss score, which swings between the mostly generic (forgettable post-rock noodling) and the occasionally inspired (tribal drums and reverb-heavy synths). It’s a shame, because too often the soundtrack drains the vivid imagery Demange and Ratcliffe work hard to create. (If only Can’s “Vitamin C” hadn’t been used so often recently; the movie would have soared with some period prog jams.)
In its better passages, ’71 is comfortable with using genre to convey its deeper thematic concerns. Ultimately, Demange’s stylized command of action cinema approaches a truth that his film’s more generic docu-drama elements can only feign.