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When Irish Eyes Aren't Smiling

Roadside Attractions
 99 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Yann Demange
Starring: Jack O'Connell, Sam Reid

While he was filming Louis Zamperini’s harrowing military experiences in Unbroken, actor Jack O’Connell might have had a feeling of déjà vu that helped inspire his performance. Surprisingly as it may seem, earlier that same year, O’Connell played another soldier suffering an ordeal that might have been even more harrowing than what Zamperini experienced. You see, in ’71, O’Connell’s fictional Private Hook didn’t even have to leave the boundaries of the United Kingdom to face a life-and-death situation in which he faced danger, not from sharks or Japanese, but from his fellow countrymen.


’71 is set in Belfast, during “The Troubles,” the name commonly given the civil disturbance that occasionally verged on outright civil war that took place in Northern Ireland for nearly three decades. Although Northern Ireland was and remains a part of the United Kingdom, the country has a substantial Catholic population, many of whose loyalties were with the surrounding Republic of Ireland and various factions of the Irish Republican Army that operated with impunity. The city was a veritable combat zone in 1971, with various neighborhoods being either Catholic or Protestant, each with its own well-armed albeit illegal militias, and civilians venturing beyond their own neighborhoods often took their life into their hands. In the midst of this volatile situation were peacekeeping British forces, who tried to maintain order but often were themselves far from neutral.


Shortly after arriving in Belfast, Private Hook (O’Connell) finds himself smack in the middle of the lion’s den. His unit is ordered to provide security for the local police searching for illegal weapons in Catholic neighborhoods. His inexperienced unit commander does not outfit the unit with riot gear, thinking their mere presence will be enough to ensure order. When they arrive, the troops realize they are in the middle of a near riot, surrounded by protestors who start throwing bricks, feces, and other objects at them. Soon, one of the soldiers drops his weapon after being struck and a little boy runs off with it. Hook and another soldier set off in pursuit.


Their plight goes from bad to fatal in an instant. A mob starts beating the two of them up and the other soldier is shot. Hook manages to escape but finds himself a marked man. The killer is an IRA member and knows that Hook can identify him. Hook in turn has to lay low and make his way back to safety. Although there are some Protestant neighborhoods along the way, it soon becomes clear that Hook isn’t sure who, if anyone, he can trust.


I have seen a number of movies about soldiers trapped behind enemy lines before, but never anything like ‘71’. It becomes clear early on that the situation in Belfast is not simply Protestants vs. Catholics, with each protecting its home turf. Instead, each group has several factions, as does the British army itself. In addition to the regulars, such as the rather naïve Lieutenant Armitage (Sam Reid), there are black ops intelligence agents on hand as well. Hook soon stumbles onto an even bigger secret—that the black ops agents are conspiring with Protestant Loyalists to set off a bomb for which the IRA will be blamed.


At times, it’s a bit tricky to keep track of who’s who in ’71. The Irish accents are often quite thick, and director Yann Demange adopts a near-documentary style that puts viewers in the middle of scenes without fully explaining who the characters in the scene are. This was obviously a deliberate choice on the part of Demange and screenwriter Gregory Burke. The result is chaos and paranoia, the precise emotions that Hook feels and that many who lived through it also felt.


The paranoia Hook feels is certainly justified. It’s clear to viewers, and eventually to Hook, that everyone involved has his own agenda and double crosses and changing loyalties abound. The movie plays out much like a John le Carre novel, with the difference being that the characters involved are directly in the line of fire at all times. And, as Hook and viewers soon learn, shocking, violent, unexpected death is lurking around every corner.


What’s especially fascinating about ’71 is the movie’s treatment of children. In addition to the boy who steals the gun, Hook winds up being befriended by a pre-teen Protestant loyalist. He’s a boy too young to understand the reasons behind the conflict but not too young enough to spout out memorized obscenities about the Catholics. The Catholic loyalists have their own zealots as well, especially a teenager who sneaks out at night, not to go drinking or meet a girl, as an American might do, but to take place in an armed raid.


Although ’71 is set against a tableau of deadly double cross and intrigue in a unique political setting, it is at heart a thrilling suspense film. Jack O’Connell shows why he was a good choice for Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken by playing here a young man who grows up a lot in the course of one single night. And during the course of the night, he finds himself in one situation after another in which he can be discovered or betrayed at any moment. What makes the movie more compelling is that these scenes play out not in some foreign land, but in an average British middle class environment with seemingly normal locales like pubs and apartment buildings.


’71 is the rare movie that manages to be both highly enlightening (on a subject about which most American audiences are completely unaware) and incredibly suspenseful. Admittedly, it’s not a true story, but it’s a fictional tale that owes its effectiveness to as shocking an actual environment as we’ve seen in Western Europe or the United States in a long time. ’71 takes place over 40 years ago, but it’s as fresh and relevant today as when the events portrayed occurred.

Read other reviews of '71:


'71 (2014) on IMDb