AFI Film Festival Review: ’71 (★★★)

AFI Fest 71

It is 1971 in Belfast. The battle between Catholic and Protestant Northern Irish is in full swing, meaning half the city is hostile and harboring IRA members and sympathizers. A young British soldier, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), fresh out of basic training, gets separated from his unit when a routine house inspection turns into a full-blown riot. Injured, scared, and faced with certain death if he is caught, Hook must find his way back into the safe part of the city, aided along the way by a strangers of varying political views, while also being tracked down by members of the IRA.

’71, the film by Yann Demange, showcases the gritty tension and chaos of a city in turmoil during a time of serious political unrest. Under Demange’s direction, the dangers facing the people of Belfast is in full view. He holds back nothing in showing the horror and reality at the cusp of civil war. And Demange does not water down the violence for the sake of audience sensibilities. He tells the truth, painting his picture with deft strokes, never going overboard.

Young actor, Jack O’Connell, offers a good performance as the soldier Gary Hook. O’Connell never overacts, and provides plenty of reasons to care about Hook and what happens to him. As dangerous enemies close in on him, O’Connell is up to the challenge, spending much of his screen time alone. You’ll definitely be seeing more of O’Connell, starting with his next project, Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken.

There are other noteworthy performances, as well. Corey McKinley plays a loyalist child who helps Hook navigate the streets, promising safety that he ultimately can’t deliver. Also worth mentioning is young IRA member Sean, played by Barry Keoghan. Keoghan’s conflicted militant is both sympathetic and villainous and it’s hard to decide what fate you want to befall him.

The story of the soldier left behind isn’t new. There are plenty of true-life stories of similar circumstances. What sets ’71 apart is the urban setting, in a developed nation, where any citizen can be a friend or foe, and some can be both. Telling the story of 1970s Belfast, a city under siege, through the eyes of the people who live there, and work there, and are trying to win a war.

This film made me realize how little I really know about the IRA and the politics surrounding Northern Ireland and the UK. Writer Gregory Burke’s screenplay helps the audience to understand the situation and its implications without having to have a lot of knowledge of the backstory. Everything you need to know about Hook’s precarious situation is given to you without being heaped upon the audience in an overwhelming dump of information.

Overall, ’71 is a good film without ever becoming exceptional.  Be sure to watch the trailer: