Set in Northern Ireland during the height of the decades-long conflict euphemistically known as the Troubles, ’71 is a suspenseful, often disorienting depiction of the hostilities between the Catholic IRA and the Protestant Loyalists allied with the British army. Our unlucky guide through this bloody chapter of history is Private Hook (Unbroken’s Jack O’Connell), a fresh-faced British recruit whose regiment is deployed to Belfast to stabilize the region’s “deteriorating security situation.”
Soon after their arrival, the British troops, accompanied by a militant Irish police force, enter a Catholic neighborhood to perform a gun raid. Initially greeted by smoldering cars and the ominous banging of trashcan lids against the sidewalk, they find themselves facing a gathering mob. The ensuing riot and fallout set up the intense ride ahead, which will take the MIA Hook through the city’s hostile streets, back alleys, and tenements as he spends one frenetic night attempting to return to his barracks in one piece.
While the premise of ’71 is simple enough (think Behind Enemy Lines in Belfast), its tortuous political backdrop is anything but. Here, neither side wears uniforms, the IRA’s old guard and more radical Provisional faction are at odds, and the true motives and allegiances of all involved are shrouded in the foggy dew of war. Throw in double agents, thick brogues, and a head-rattling helping of shaky camerawork, and it’s enough to make you want to ditch the popcorn for a Dramamine.
This taut, subtle thriller is not without its merits, though. Chief among them is O’Connell’s visceral, sympathetic performance, which is enhanced by filmmaker Yann Demange’s unflinching and kinetic direction: Your heart races and head spins in sync with his as he navigates this alien terrain where the line separating friend from foe is often blurred. However, it is the believable supporting players and singular setting — serpentine and desolate streets, dimly lit pubs, and glimpses into the homes of those inextricably caught up in the strife — that really immerse you in the gritty world authentically re-created here. By the time the film reaches its somewhat unsatisfying conclusion, you may find yourself ruminating less on Hook’s fate and more on what lies ahead for those left on the mean streets of Belfast.