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Non-Review Review: ’71

Harrowing. Claustrophobic. Intense.

’71 is a powerhouse experience. Charting one night in Belfast for a young soldier separated from his regiment, there is a constant sense of dread pushing in from the edge of the frame. As one might expect for a movie set off the Falls Road in seventies Belfast, ’71 is paranoid and unsettled. It is a movie that constantly pushes the viewer to the very edge of their seat, offering an uncomfortable glimpse into something that would seem excessively brutal were it not anchored in historical fact.


Yann Demange directs from a script by Gregory Burke, perfectly capturing the sense of a city under siege. In ’71, Belfast is not so much a place as a grotesque theatre, with mankind’s inhumanity on full display. Appropriately enough, the film is lit in the orange glow of simmering flame or the ambient green of the fluorescent bulb. Demange manages to perfectly capture the heightened reality of the situation. This is brutality on a scale that is almost impossible to imagine, but is well-documented as fact.

’71 is a very familiar template. It is the story of the lost man in enemy territory. It is a genre that has proven quite popular in recent years, with films like The Raid and Dredd, among others. However, ’71 works so well because it anchors that familiar genre template in historical reality. The version of Belfast presented here might be heightened for dramatic effect, but it actually existed. The film captures the horror of old news footage or photographs from the Troubles. This isn’t a dystopia. This was a reality.


“I’m not even leaving the country,” Gary Hook tries to assure his younger brother early in the film. His instructor informs the division that they are not being deployed to Germany, but instead to “Belfast, the United Kingdom.” On their first tour of the city, one young soldier wryly comments, “Looks like Leeds.” And yet, despite all these attempts to assure themselves, Belfast remains foreign and hostile territory. It is at once eerily familiar and hauntingly alien.

Even among the Loyalists who welcome a lost British soldier, Hook finds himself ill at ease. There’s a palpable sense of hatred and resentment in Belfast – impossible festering anger. This is hatred that is bred into people on both sides of the fence, at a young age. A young boy who stumbles across Hook seems amazed that the soldier cannot confidently identify himself as Catholic or Protestant. These binary identities are so much a part of day-to-day life in Belfast that he cannot fathom a world where they wouldn’t matter.


This is rage and violence that seeks expression in almost any form. It is telling that a considerable amount of the violence in ’71 takes place within various communities; Republicans kill Republicans, Loyalists kill Loyalists. Violence is self-perpetuating. Even within these communities, trust does not and cannot exist. There is only bristling contempt and simmering resentment. ’71 wisely avoids getting too bogged down in blame or recrimination, ignoring the causes too complex for a two-hour film. Instead, we see the results.

A young officer with no real experience, Lieutenant Armitage suggests that the soldiers should offer support to the RUC without wearing riot gear. “We need to look these people in the eye,” he asserts. It is a noble sentiment, if entirely misguided. Completely unprepared for the brutality that is commonplace in seventies Belfast, Armitage finds himself staring in horror at the violence between local residents and the Royal Ulster Constabulary.


Idealism cannot take root in this environment, so things only get worse. Violence is met with violence. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It comes to the point where even members of the Republican movement cannot agree with one another about what happened at a Unionist pub; where even the undercover members of the British military forces find themselves actively stoking the fires of hatred, rather than working to quell the crisis.

’71 captures madness, in the same way that the best Vietnam films capture that madness. There is a grotesque exaggerated absurdity to this chain of cause and effect that would seem contrived if not anchored in well-documented histories of the Troubles. Demange and Burke manage to capture a sense of the horrifying ridiculousness of this world; something that seems like it could not possibly exist as a sustainable status quo, and yet undeniably did.


Demange has assembled a solid cast to bring the story to life. Jack O’Connell is playing a fairly thin cypher – a character who exists primarily to grant the audience a window into this world. However, O’Connell does great work, capturing a palpable sense of desperation and unease. He is ably supported by an ensemble including David Wilmont, Sean Harris, Killian Scott and Paul Anderson. ’71 is a film that puts mood ahead of character, but cleverly casts actors very good at conveying depth and nuance to flesh it out.

’71 is a highlight of the cinematic year, an atmospheric master class.

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