What fresh hell is this? Oh, Belfast 

Liam Mac Uaid reviews ‘71, a gripping anti-war thriller

It’s always the way. When a soldier in an occupying army gets separated from his unit and stranded alone in hostile territory it’s always going to be the kindest, most naive one that it happens to. In the case of Gary Hook, Jack O’Connell’s character in ‘71 he’s been raised in a Derbyshire care home and has a younger brother still there. The enemy is keen to kill him, and some on his own side are too. It’s a plot that could be set in Kabul, Baghdad or any other site of imperial conflict. Handled well it makes for a thrilling chase story.

Writer Gregory Burke and director Yann Demange deliver a much more complex film than that. Films about the north of Ireland have never been box office gold in Britain, but ‘71 is set in West Belfast in that year. Private Hook and his regiment are sent there on a colonial peacekeeping mission and learn pretty quickly that no one in that part of the town wants them there. Hook’s squad are sent in as support for a police raid in a Catholic area. Burke and Demange aren’t reluctant to show the Belfast cops as a brutal sectarian militia, which they were. That was one of the film’s first surprises.

A riot breaks out. Hook and a friend gets separated. The IRA kill his mate and he flees through back streets of Fenian Belfast which are an urban equivalent of Colonel Kurtz’s domain in Apocalypse Now. It’s seat gripping stuff and, depending on your political perspective, you might be a bit torn about supporting the imperialist occupier or the anti-imperialist revolutionaries.

The action takes places in quite a small area of the city and Hook is rescued by a Fenian hating son of a loyalist gangster family. Trust me. It’s geographically plausible. Also plausible, because it happened, is that Hook stumbled across loyalists priming a bomb which had been given to them by an undercover British army unit. The Military Reaction Force (MRF) tell the loyalists they want it planted in a Catholic area as killing Catholics “sends a message”. These “off the books” operations were a feature of British counter-insurgency  methods. The bomb goes off prematurely. Again, your political views may affect your reaction to that.

Double dealing on both sides is essential in a thriller like this. A section of the IRA is collaborating with the MRF and wants to use them to settle scores with more militant members. This is a reference to the split between the Officials and the Provisionals. When it hardened the Officials were providing intelligence information to the British which was used to have Provisionals murdered. There is also a nice little scene which foretells British penetration of the Provisionals a few years later.

The film deserves to be a hit.  The soundtrack by David Holmes eschews all the customary Irish tropes and can stand alone as a strong piece of ambient electronica. This is an exciting thriller and its central message is that young men recruited into armies to go to other people’s countries are completely expendable. As one character pithily explains it in class terms, the British army is “posh c….s telling thick c….s to kill poor c….s.” At a time when most mainstream cultural production on the subject  is a celebration of war and imperialism it’s a refreshing change.


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