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’71 goes to the heart of the Irish Troubles

Film & TV

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In an era beset by interminable, religious-based insurrections across the Middle East, it’s easy to overlook a similar clash that dominated Irish and English politics for the best part of 30 years to the late 1990s.

Like the Yugoslav wars that ran almost contemporaneously, the Irish Troubles set neighbour against neighbour and faith against faith. Here, though, England’s military might also opposed the Republican (Catholic) revolutionaries, who deployed urban terrorism and multiple murders both on their own turf and in England in a dirty political war. Their Loyalist (Protestant) opponents were similarly violent.

Into this morass steps a platoon of raw English recruits, surprised to find themselves deployed in Northern Ireland instead of the cushy German posting they expected. Private Gary Hook (played superbly by Jack O’Connell) makes an emotional farewell visit to a boy living in care; we can only presume the boy is Hook’s younger brother.

Much of the plot unfolds in this way: sketchy details force viewers to follow the action rather than any biographical or psychological development. This device renders all the characters more or less anonymous, so that their minute-to-minute experiences soon symbolise the lot of everyone involved.

The bulk of the story tracks the terrifying 24 hours or so after Hook is separated from his unit during a street riot which erupts in their first foray into Belfast. Hunted by the IRA, he can’t be sure that the Unionists who eventually help him are not themselves IRA. Friend or foe, they all wear civvies and all sound the same.

At times, ’71 looks like a documentary, with shaky, hand-held camera work augmenting the confusion. First-time feature director Yann Demange began his career filming live concerts and assisting on commercials and music videos, hence his dexterity in handling quick cuts and short, enigmatic scenes.

It’s a thoroughly gripping movie which, while about Ireland, has relevance to the terrors faced by any young warrior trapped in the throes of a conflict he or she doesn’t understand. I can’t remember the last time 100 minutes of my life disappeared so quickly.

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