What might a movie called ’71 be about? The Pentagon Papers? War between India and Pakistan? The release of Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album? Had director Yann Demange taken a cue from Vincent Gallo (Buffalo ’66) and called his film Belfast ’71, no confusion would be possible. Arguably the most violent year in the history of the Troubles, 1971 saw riots (in response to mass internment of nationalists by British security forces) that prompted thousands to flee Northern Ireland, and culminated with the December 4 bombing of McGurk’s Bar, which killed 15 people. Demange’s film, a work of fiction, doesn’t dramatize any of these specific events, but it captures, with harrowing intensity, the chaos and terror of the era, depicting a single night during which a particularly green British soldier gets separated from his unit in the Catholic part of Belfast—a foul-up that practically amounts to a death sentence.
The soldier in question, Gary Hook, is played by rising star Jack O’Connell, more in the survival mode of Unbroken than in the feral mode of Starred Up. Accompanying his new unit on a raid that was meant to be quick and surgical, Gary steps in the wrong direction when locals start not-so-passively resisting and winds up running for his life, unwittingly abandoned. (A fellow soldier also left behind is immediately killed by the IRA.) Plans are made to extract him, headed by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Armitage (Sam Reid). In the meantime, however, Gary has to rely on the kindness of strangers, each of whom could rat him out to the IRA at any moment. He’s also being fervently sought by the Military Reaction Force, a counter-insurgency unit of the British army (described by one former member as a “legalized death squad”) that’s concerned about what Gary may find out if he talks to the so-called enemy.
Having previously directed only shorts and TV episodes, Demange, who was born in France but has lived most of his life in England, makes an accomplished feature debut, though it augurs a future in gripping action movies rather than probing political dramas. From the moment that Gary is trapped behind “enemy lines” (in a war movie set entirely among residential streets, Liverpool doubles ably for Belfast) ’71 rarely stops for breath; the threat of sudden violence hangs over every mundane conversation, and Demange expertly sustains the tension, allowing anxiety to build, briefly ebb, and then build again, over and over. O’Connell, so savage in Starred Up, makes a superbly terrified and helpless “hero” (if that’s even the right word for someone who’s just trying to survive), and he’s surrounded by an equally agile cast of lesser-known actors, each of whom strives to achieve maximum ambiguity when it comes to the character’s true motives. Only in the film’s last third or so does it badly falter, embracing cheap cynicism that makes its conclusion feel aggressively facile rather than cathartic. The setting may be Belfast ’71, but Demange’s sensibility—first-rate suspense coupled with black-and-white politics—is much more James Cameron ’86.