***1/2 out of ****
’71 is a historical fiction film about a young British soldier, played by rising star, Jack O’Connell (Unbroken and Starred Up), who is trapped in the streets of Belfast following an upheaval against the troops during the worst year of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
The film is an all-in-one-night thriller with the kind of immediate energy and handheld camerawork with tight editing, reminiscent of Paul Greengrass films, but is the first feature by French director, Yann Demange, who has already won awards for this film in the U.K. What’s remarkable about its look, is the use of Super 16mm and digital cinematography, timed to capture a washed-out aesthetic; similar to English cinema of the seventies.
Expecting to go to Germany, the main character is reassigned to the country in conflict between the Loyalist
Protestants and Nationalist Catholics (who included the I.R.A.). Assuring his young son that he will return safely, the soldier travels to Ireland without much concern. Even his commander (Sam Reid) would rather not intimidate the locals with riot gear and brings the soldiers in standard military guard to control crowds outside a home under inspection. Upon arrival, they receive more hostility than anticipated, but when an interrogation by carelessly brutal officers results in a beating out in the street, the angry townsfolk rise up against the unit.
The movie is engaging and nerve-racking, but it is not fun. Like the best films portraying real-world conflicts, it is immersed in the confusion and messiness of human beings clashing. The film captures a place where people look alike and speak the same language, but distinguish their differences with hateful determination. There are young I.R.A. extremists committing murders without the approval of their disciplined older leaders; loyalist bomb-makers working with undercover agents; and even double agents in the mix of this chaos. In all the confusion, there is no knowing whom this lone soldier can trust, in order to get out alive.