"YOU'LL BE here ’til the paddies shoot you,” is the sobering welcome a sarcastic corporal offers a group of fresh squaddies in ’71, Yann Demange’s eagerly-awaited political thriller.
Set in Belfast during the early years of the Troubles, it stars Jack O’Connell as a green recruit lost on the Falls Road and the misadventures he encounters in trying to get home.
’71 screens at the London Film Festival, before having wider release on October 10. Advanced notices mention its pedigree for Hitchcockian-style suspense and its stirrings of spine-tingling anxiety: “Heart-poundingly tense,” reads one blurb.
These observations are accurate enough but ’71 is far more expressive on the subject of the Troubles than average action thrillers. While the movie sets your pulse racing with a sense of danger, the narrative stirs your thoughts on what attracts young men to the excitement of gun play and the shaky concept of heroism.
O’Connell plays Gary Hook, a poor lad from a working-class background who sees the army as one of few prospects in life, a view shared by his fellow platoon members.
We see snapshots of Gary having a kick-about on a grotty recreation ground overlooking a drab industrial backdrop, compared to which the vista of some distant glamour must seem enticing. When Gary and the other new enlistees are informed they’re bound for the North of Ireland, their reaction is more disappointment than concern. “Are we not going to Germany?” asks one soldier, who’d envisioned army life as spending time in bierkellars chatting up the frauleins.
But Belfast is a different prospect to Berlin. As the film’s title implies, the story unfolds at a time before the battle lines of conflict became rigidly set, before Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday, before minds narrowed and hearts hardened. Military heads talk of “the deteriorating situation” and even those at the centre of the violence are taken off guard by its destructive power.
In one comic-ironic vignette the new patrol are ambushed and showered in piss-balloons thrown by local lads. All have a good laugh but the attack is symbolic of an essential vulnerability.
This perilous reality dawns not so much slowly but with gradual, shocking impact in one beautifully choreographed scene, when what is expected to be a routine house-search emerges into a full-blown riot.
The looks on the faces of the new recruits says everything. No-one has prepared them for such local hostility — no-one knew to expect it. This sense of terrifying surprise also affects the paramilitary groups on all sides.
David Wilmot plays an old-guard IRA leader trying and failing to control the younger, more intensified volunteers, portrayed here by Killian Scott and Mark McCann, at his ice-staring best.
Yet, for all the authentic brutality, humanity lies beneath. Angelic-faced Barry Keoghan plays an IRA rookie who can’t pull the trigger of his gun, despite the urgings of his commander: “You wanted to be a gunman, Sean.” When Gary stabs an IRA man who then slowly dies in his arms, he’s not sure if he should comfort the dying man or finish him off.
The movie is shot through with such thought-provoking, heart-breaking detail. One must overlook some convenient, coincidental plot points but ’71 hits all the right targets.