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'71

Revisiting the Irish Troubles, '71 is heavy on atmosphere but short on tension.
By Tom Clift
March 23, 2015
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By Tom Clift
March 23, 2015
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A young British soldier gets separated from his regiment and has to make his way back to safe terrain amid the height of the Troubles in Belfast. That’s the basic set-up of war-time thriller '71, a film that epitomises the murkiness of the conflict that it depicts. Performance, character, cinematography and story are cloaked in an air of uncertainty and mistrust, with people on both sides of the camera keeping their cards held close to their chests. The result is a film that’s heavy on atmosphere but never quite comes together as a compelling whole.

The movie begins with a squad of British soldiers being dispatched to the Northern Irish capital. Their assignment is to help quell growing unrest in the city, where clashes between Protestant loyalists, Catholic nationalist and various factions of the IRA have transformed entire neighbourhoods into war zones. The magnitude of the conflict is made clear on the platoon’s first mission, when a house search sparks a riot. In a hasty retreat, Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is accidentally left behind — trapped in dangerous territory and surrounded by people who want him dead.

Director Yann Demange does great work establishing the look and feel of Belfast circa 1971. The empty grey streets leave you feeling queasy during daylight hours, and hum with danger at night. It’s a quality reminiscent of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, a comparison driven home by David Holmes’ pounding score. Handheld camerawork further enforces the sense of immediacy, particularly during the film’s sudden, unflinching moments of brutal violence.

Unfortunately, the docudrama approach comes at cost. O’Connell, recently seen in Unbroken, does a lot with very little dialogue, but ultimately we know almost nothing about his character. That goes double for the people hunting him, and triple for the double agents and soldiers trying to coordinate his rescue. For the most part, the ancillary characters — the reluctant young revolutionary, the unscrupulous spy — feel more like archetypes than they do real people.

Screenwriter Gregory Burke hints at more complex plot machinations concerning people further up the food chain, but it never amounts to anything of substance. So the film fluctuates between gripping and strangely uninspiring — commanding your attention during certain key sequences, but leaving very little impression after the fact.

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