One might not expect the director of Channel 4’s Big Brother zombie-drama Dead Set, or the drug–dealing crime series Top Boy, to make his debut feature film with a stark look at the subterfuge and brutality of the Irish Troubles. However, in ’71 Yann Demange proves successful in creating a surprisingly apolitical film, focusing on the experiences of a British soldier who has not sided with either the loyalists or the nationalists. When a young boy asks if he is Protestant or Catholic, his answer is, despairingly, ‘I don’t know.’
Opening with two near-identical soldiers engaged in a boxing match, there is already an overwhelming sense of disconnection between the British forces and the incendiary situation that is affecting the Irish people. A drill sergeant commands both men (or perhaps, considering their age, boys) to ‘Take it, then give it back!’ showing a complete lack of emotional investment; they are just following orders. The first few minutes are devoted to following Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) through basic training with fellow prospective soldiers. They are soon informed that the division is being deployed to Belfast as part of emergency measures to keep the peace. Upon arrival they undertake a raid in a Catholic region which results in the locals attacking the security forces. Hook is soon separated from the rest of his men, and due to the escalating violence is left behind during a retreat. Hook has no choice but to make it back to safety whilst being pursued by Irish nationalists.
’71 thrives on contrasts, from a young boy commanding soldiers to murder Fenians to the lack of troops that an army should have at their disposal. The most obvious contrast is the claustrophobic proximity of the camera when following Hook through Belfast’s wide streets. Radcliffe’s cinematography isolates Hook by framing him against towering walls covered in propaganda, or hidden inside dark, enclosed spaces as he comes to terms with the brutality he witnessed. This closeness could almost be shot from Hook’s point of view, especially during moments of high intensity, such as an explosion, where he and the camera both reel in an engrossing three to four minute take: the surroundings shift in and out of focus as the traumatic scenes hit home, with Hook’s loss of consciousness mirrored in a slow fade to black.
Combined with a score of distorted ambience melded with a few poignant guitar riffs, Demange creates and sustains a thrilling tension. Sadly ’71 also bombards the audience persistently with an overabundance of sound, even in quieter moments; but if its goal is to disorientate and jar then the film succeeds. Moments of comparative peace reveal collusions between security forces and dissidents, and ideological differences between family members. Plots and counterplots only scratch the surface of the widespread corruption that characterises that period of political turmoil, but the few examples offered in the film are powerful.
Yann Demange’s thrilling debut may seem to be a anti-war film with a typical nihilistic focus, yet it is hard to match the pace and intensity that ’71 provides.