Private Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) has just completed his training in the British Army, and was hoping to be sent to Germany, but receives the news with the others in his regiment that they will now be sent to Belfast in Northern Ireland instead, for the Troubles there have flared up as the locals riot against the Army and police recently in 1971. Hook cannot quite hide his disappointment, but this is the job he chose and he cannot back away now, though to ground himself and remind himself what is important in life he visits his younger brother in the orphanage he lives in and spends an afternoon playing football, trying to cheer himself up as much as the boy. But soon Hook will have to leave, and be plunged into one major problem...
Usually films about the Troubles don't strive to be exciting and pulse-pounding for they have a duty, they feel, to be educational in recreating the era, therefore most are based on true accounts. '71 wasn't exactly like that as it set out to be an entertainment, a thriller with a conflict-strewn Belfast as its setting, yet for all those intentions, crafting a fictional plot all the better to establish the tense setpieces as many in this genre would tell you are its bread and butter, the fact that this was a highly controversial era that the majority have still not come to terms with couldn't help but affect the writing of Gregory Burke's script. All the way through you as a viewer were wondering how you were intended to react, were you meant to be on the edge of your seat?
Or were you meant to be sitting back and drawing an academic opinion of the subterfuge and bloodshed the film depicts? It was an important question since if you were wanting an action flick which this kept getting closer to in style, then you had to ponder the ethics of that as doing so felt the need to paint the world in goodies versus baddies colours rather than the very much more complex emotions the actual situation bred. Even when this was made, with the Peace Process well underway, there had been bumps and potholes in the road to that state of affairs, and '71 could be accused of wishing to reopen old wounds that were not necessarily healed, all for the sake of placing its main character in a narrative that adhered to the man on the run suspense clichés.
So you had some folks who were wanting to murder him, and others who look after him, and those folks were not who you might have expected, which was one plus point in the film: there were surprises, shocks even, as you watched this unfold. Burke didn't favour one side over the other, but then neither did he feel confident enough to set out the nitty-gritty of the politics that brought this about, fair enough it would have gotten in the way to hold up the story for speeches relating both angles, but it took too much for granted and you could sense the tension. Not between North and South, Catholic or Protestant, but between escapist fiction and the pressing need to make clear what this conflict was about, notably absent here when they preferred to fall back on shadowy undercover business and the epidemic of terrorism.
Jack O'Connell made for a curiously passive hero as Hook manages to get caught up in a riot on his first time on the streets of Belfast (talk about bad luck) and then separated from his buddies when he tries to retrieve a fallen soldier's rifle from a small boy; his partner in this mission is shot dead, and now he has to escape back to his barracks, which is pretty much all he does, a symbolic figure of the innocent trapped in a chaos he barely understands no matter that the actor added a convincing patina of fear and desperation to a role that could have been flimsy. Nevertheless, aside from one brief scene where he fought back, Hook does spend most of the movie hiding and running, growing progressively more injured and demoralised, leaving the drama carried by those his presence serves as an affront or an embarrassment - or worse. Director Yann Demange, who had first made an impression on television with the zombie horror Dead Set, concocted an authentic look and atmosphere, assuming you regarded seventies Belfast as post-apocalyptic, but there were issues. Music by David Holmes.