" '71" is about a young British Army soldier, Pvt. Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), who in 1971 is shipped out with his regiment to Northern Ireland just as the Troubles are accelerating. Garrisoned in a reclaimed schoolhouse, Hook is deployed the next day to search the Catholic neighborhood near the Falls Road front line.
Like so many of his young fellow soldiers, Hook is entirely unprepared for the vehemence he encounters. A riot quickly ensues. Trying to retrieve a rifle, Hook finds himself caught behind enemy lines, as it were, as he flees the IRA men bent on killing him. His own troops have already retreated and, apparently, forgotten about him.
There are daytime sequences in “ ’71” but the movie is so drenched in darkness that, when I think back on it, it’s like one great big nocturnal blur. It takes place mostly over the course of one night as Hook – at various times pummeled, captured, on the run, and hidden by a do-gooder Catholic father and daughter (Richard Dormer and Charlie Murphy) – darts his way through the purgatorial streets. The director, Yann Demange, born in Paris and raised in London, has discussed in interviews the dual influences of such disparate films as “The Battle of Algiers” and “Escape From New York,” and you can see both at work here. (I was also reminded a bit of Carol Reed’s classic 1947 “Odd Man Out,” with James Mason as an Irish rebel hunted at night by the police.) The night world that Hook struggles through is both realistically grounded and almost fantastical in its dystopian horrors.
Demange directed acclaimed British television shows, such as “Top Boy,” before this, his first feature. His Scottish screenwriter, Gregory Burke, wrote the acclaimed stage play “Black Watch,” about soldiers in Iraq. They universalize Hook’s story without losing its specificity. Lethal elements are on display on all sides of this conflict, and Hook finds himself unable to trust just about anybody. He rarely even speaks, partly because he is traumatized but also because he doesn’t want his accent to give him away.
The filmmakers don’t give Hook much of a back story. We know from an early scene that he was raised in an orphanage with his younger brother, but essentially Hook is a blank slate – a callow kid with no idea what lies ahead. He doesn’t even have any discernible politics, and the point is implicitly made that he is not that far removed, in age or life experience, from the rabid youths who are pursuing him.
Viewed purely as a thriller, “ ’71” is highly effective. However, by taking no sides and painting almost everybody except Hook with a black brush, the movie can sometimes seem too blandly evenhanded. Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers,” the film’s reputed main model, was a furious act of pro-Algerian partisanship that was no less emotionally or politically complex for being so. Demange and Burke don’t take the kind of risks that Pontecorvo took, and so their achievement is much smaller in scope. (This would be true of just about any movie – “The Battle of Algiers” is one of the greatest ever made.)
But within its limited compass, “ ’71” packs a punch, and the lack of political bias does give it a more encompassing feel. Hook’s passage through this hellacious city acquires a symbolic force that transcends the specifics of his plight. And O’Connell, who likewise was pummeled and tortured as Louis Zamperini in “Unbroken,” is quite touching here. His callowness in the face of this horror makes it all seem that much more horrific. Hook is a particular soldier in a particular time, but he could also be a stand-in for any of us as we attempt to fight on. Grade: B+ (Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, and language throughout.)