Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
’71 is a brutal and uncompromising work powered by a fantastic lead performance from up-and-comer Jack O’Connell. Centering on a rarely-discussed topic in film, the story navigates the tumultuous time in the 1970s and 1980s when the IRA (Irish Republican Army) was part of a religious and political divide between the UK and Ireland. Pro-UK supporters were traditionally Protestants while pro-independence individuals were predominantly Catholics backed by the IRA. This led to chaotic violence and endless debates surrounding citizens’ rights and the independence of a hopeful-to-be nation. That allows for conflict to constantly simmer underneath the narrative while British soldiers trained to control the population, ensuring riots or other organized demonstrations do not lead to any death. That moment leads to the film’s inciting incident where O’Connell’s Gary gets caught in the crossfires and must abandon his post in order to survive. Very few films demonstrate the callousness and savagery behind most acts of violence, and ’71 tackles those moments with profound regret. It’s a masterful film.
Gary is a young man thrown into the mix of the British military, going through extensive training before being dispatched to Belfast in Northern Ireland. Their job is not exactly the most glamorous work: holding firm as rioters move through their own city in hopes of claiming it as their own, citing Irish independence as their motivation. It’s brutal for Gary and his company to stand with arms locked as people spit in their faces and simply want to be their own population; it’s gradually depicted in a compassionate light, even if their actions are particularly vile in these moments. When the people continue to push and force Gary and his men to give in for a short while, a young boy grabs a soldier’s gun and runs off in the distance. Gary chases him down, attempts to take the gun back, and gets beaten up by two older men who are part of the resistance. When another soldier attempts to come to the aid, they are held up by the violent men before one comes over and shoots Gary’s comrade in the head. Gary runs for his life, abandoning his post, and falls into a world that terrifies him and feels unrecognizable.
The British-Irish conflict is shown as its own circle of hell. Vile actions run rampant but they all hold significant impact because of their historical grounding and the film’s savage depiction of war. There’s nothing that will make you feel gung-ho about fighting for your country, particularly when Gary is forced to fight against the citizens that he is supposedly protecting. O’Connell’s performance is brave and remarkable, even if it feels familiar to his work in 2014’s Unbroken. So far, with those and Starred Up, he’s stormed onto the scene as a strong physical and mental presence. He reminds me of a young Ernest Borgnine. Gregory Burke’s screenplay explores the mindset of every side of the ethnographic argument during these harrowing times, which aids the emotional wallop of the film wonderfully. Director Yann Demange doesn’t shy away from the horrifying moments: a surprise bombing, a brutal wound, and a gunshot to the head are shown in their entirety and treated as matters of the time and place, with no need to justify. ’71 is ultimately deeply powerful, cutting to the gruesome core of war and examining it through the lens of a man caught at a moral crossroads.
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)