Protestant and Catholic corruption in 1971 Belfast

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'71 (M). Director: Yann Demange. Starring: Jack O'Connell, Richard Dormer, Sean Harris, Sam Reid, Charlie Murphy, Barry Keoghan, Martin McCann. 100 minutes

Rarely have the Troubles of early 1970s Belfast been so grippingly portrayed. Debutante feature director Demange's thriller '71, about the ordeal of a young British soldier, Gary Hook (O'Connell), who becomes separated from his unit during a riot and spends a night lost in one of the city's most dangerous neighbourhoods, plays like a 100-minute nightmare of murky morals and ever present peril.

Demange gives us just enough time to get to know our hero before he drops him into hell. We see Hook engaged in combat training with his comrades at their barracks in rural Derbyshire; shortly afterwards they are told they are to be sent to Belfast. Hook spends an afternoon playing soccer with and saying goodbye to his adoring younger brother, who lives in an institution (presumably they are orphans).

Hook arrives in Belfast to discover a situation fractured along numerous lines. It is not merely Catholic versus Protestant; the radicalised youths of the Provisional IRA are at odds with their established forebears, and within the British military itself, the covert, counter-insurgency Military Reaction Force, led by cocksure Captain Sandy Browning (Harris), has also become a force of incipient violence.

Hook is sent with his unit by their cleanskin commanding officer, Lieut Armitage (Reid), to support local police in a crackdown on a Catholic community. With alarming naivety, Armitage insists they leave their riot gear behind; they should be seen as protectors, not aggressors. Predictably, when members of the community later arrive at the scene to resist and provoke the soldiers, chaos ensues.

Predictable, yes, but Demange, a seasoned television director, proves his adeptness at building tension. He cuts back and forth between the increasingly frightened faces of the soldiers — like Hook, they are mostly young boys — the increasingly defiant faces of the protestors, and the brutal actions of the police that are like sparks to fuel. Violence swells and eventually bursts in one shocking, climactic moment.

Hook finds himself abandoned by his unit, unarmed, and running on foot from two Provisional assailants, Paul (Haggerty) and Sean (Keoghan) — the latter of whom is younger even than Hook — who, fired by ideological fervour, are out for his blood. This chase scene is another bravura sequence from Demange; breathtaking action with the highest of stakes for the lost and vulnerable Hook.

It goes on like this. Darkness falls and Hook finds himself lost and moving from one perilous situation to the next. He sees the faces of various sides of the conflict: he receives assistance from a plucky Loyalist boy (McKinley), and later from a Catholic and former British Army medic, Eamon (Dormer) and his daughter, Brigid (Murphy). Trust is at all times in short supply, and mercy always conditional.

Demange and his screenwriter, playwright Gregory Burke, don't take sides in the conflict. Corruption is everywhere. Eamon describes the British Army as 'Posh c***s telling dumb c***s to kill poor c***s', but this is an equally apt description for the Republicans, for whom the face of innocence personified by Sean is just as expendable as Hook's is to Browning.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: '71, Yann Demange, Jack O'Connell, Richard Dormer, Sean Harris, The Troubles, Belfast

 

 

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I just love Thursdays. Today an eloquent book review by a most eloquent writer ,Fr.Andrew Hamilton ,and then an astute film review by our talented film critic, Tim Kroenart. Thank you to both of you gifted people helping questioning people to understand our world.
Celia | 26 March 2015


Spot on review Tim. Jack O'Connell is a revelation in this. Scared, trapped and desperate. And totally mesmerising. Incredible filmmaking.
Jen V | 27 March 2015


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