’71: the past is not a foreign country

Rob Lyons

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‘Do any of you know where Belfast is? Northern Ireland? The United Kingdom? Here?’ A sergeant-major explains where his raw recruits are headed for their first tour of duty. And no, it’s not a cushy trip to Germany, as they had expected. The clueless young soldiers soon get a sense of what they’ve walked into when, on their first patrol, local Catholic kids start throwing bags filled with urine and faeces at them. Welcome to Belfast. Welcome to ‘The Troubles’.

The protagonist in ’71 is Private Gary Hook (played by rising star Jack O’Connell), who gets separated from his platoon in the midst of a riot, after the army goes in to support a police raid on a house suspected of being a hiding place for guns. It’s the details here that bring the broader situation alive: the women in the nearby houses banging dustbin lids on the pavement to alert the neighbourhood that a raid is in progress; the brutal attitude of the RUC men; the naivety of both the fresh-faced officer and his men. (Catholics in Belfast had by this time long lost any naivety about the army being there to protect them.) When Hook goes chasing after a boy who has pinched the rifle of another soldier, who has been felled by a brick from the crowd, he soon gets surrounded by angry locals. He makes his escape by the skin of his teeth.

Having set the scene, however, the film becomes a gripping, behind-enemy-lines thriller. Unable to get back to his squad and completely ignorant of his surroundings or who to trust, Hook goes from one life-threatening situation to another. At this point, the basic plot could be set anywhere: a lone individual, caught between various warring sides, with conspiracies and plot twists at every turn, all in a bleak and unforgiving landscape. The fact that we are in Seventies Belfast gives Yann Demange’s film the bite of authenticity. This isn’t some bullshit dystopian setting from the future; this is a real warzone. And Hook’s ignorance – he doesn’t even know where his barracks are – combined with the absence of mobile phones or other means of communication are the perfect circumstances to create a real sense of claustrophobia.

There have been a fair few films about the war in Northern Ireland, but this one keeps the politics to a minimum. It’s there if you look for it, but ’71 inspires questions rather than providing an analysis. There’s the way green-behind-the-ears squaddies get plonked into a conflict they don’t understand, to be used as cannon fodder if necessary. It’s a far cry from the Army recruitment adverts of today that emphasise self-actualisation – ‘be the best’ – rather than facing and fighting an enemy. There’s the emergence of the Provisional IRA over the Official IRA as the latter proves incapable of defending Catholic communities. There’s the way in which significant chunks of a major British city become no-go zones for the authorities. Even when you know a lot about the history of Northern Ireland, ’71 still manages to shock. This kind of thing is supposed to happen in other countries, not in the UK.

But that political minimalism works to the advantage of ’71. It provides an interesting contrast to some of the more didactic films about Northern Ireland in the past (even if some of them have been pretty good). You can enjoy ’71 as a straightforward thriller or you can think about what’s going on. It’s up to you.

The real bad guys are Army intelligence, prepared to screw over members of their own side in pursuit of their own ends. In that sense, ‘the state’ appears to sit above the squaddies and the officers, as if it somehow has no responsibility for their presence in the situation. The various factions are perhaps drawn a bit broadly, too, but there’s only so much subtlety possible in what is, essentially, a chase movie.

O’Connell is very effective in a film where he doesn’t actually speak all that much and there is a good supporting cast of actors you sort-of recognise but couldn’t name. The violence is handled well, too. This is not cartoonish in any way. When someone gets shot, stabbed or blown up, it feels real and shocking. There won’t be many better thrillers than ’71 this year.

Rob Lyons is a columnist for spiked. He will be speaking at the debate Energy futures: how can we keep the lights on? at the Battle of Ideas festival, held at the Barbican in London on 18-19 October. Get tickets here.

Watch the trailer for ’71:

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