Some historic events will always be controversial or difficult to use as source material for a film. “The Troubles” that involved Ireland, The British Army and IRA is still recent history and for some is a conflict which is still continuing. It means that any movie using this event as their starting point will have to deliver something that is not black and white and goes some way to portraying the “shades of grey.” This film could never be about heroes and villains, right and wrong or good versus evil.
The concept that sells the movie is actually a very simple one. A young British soldier, on his first “mission” into the highly contested area of Belfast, is separated from his troop and has to survive alone in hostile territory. It is a story we have seen many times before, namely Behind Enemy Lines. It could have very easily fallen into the “British Soldier equals hero, IRA Soldiers equal villains. This would have been too simple and to a lot of people, insulting.
Instead, ’71 takes the view that there was wrong and good on both sides. That there were people who believed strong enough in their cause to kill for it and others who knew when to let a person live or how much trouble deaths would cause. There are characters who play both sides, people who you think can be trusted but show they can’t and others who would be villains who show a “softer” side. It is a film full of layers and Jack O’Connell’s soldier, Gary, is stuck in the middle.
That doesn’t mean the film is complicated. At its surface is a movie about one man surviving a night in enemy territory. The selling point is that this isn’t a traditional “warzone.” In fact, O’Connell must survive along the backstreets of Belfast, along narrow alleys, outhouses and streets full of violent protests. It makes for a tense movie, lit by the flames of the petrol bombs.
The tension doesn’t just come from the environment. Early on, in the scene that separates O’Connell from his troop, the movie accurately and horrifically shows the situation in Ireland. Groups of unarmed protesters pushing against armed British soldiers. What more, it is the armed British you feel scared for, especially as the make-shift missiles are thrown and the real danger of their situation becomes a reality.
This isn’t an action movie though. It is a drama, with very real scenes of violence and the effects of that violent. O’Connell is not a Commando-style soldier and when he does have to kill, the effects of his first life taken are felt clearly on-screen. It demonstrates O’Connell’s skills as an actor and why he is one to watch for the future. He carries this film without ever selling it as a “hero” amongst the “villains.”
That is what the movie may be lacking. It successfully avoids the “black and white” but doesn’t delve deep enough into the supporting characters. There are more stories to develop and motives to explore. We only get the extreme actions of the characters rather than their reasons and it would help the movie, set at a time full of controversy and conflicting points, to explore these ideas further.
Overall, ’71 does well to tell a very simple story during a controversial and complicated time in British history. A movie about a soldier stuck in enemy territory begins to explore the different sides to the “war” and why people chose their actions. Unfortunately, it doesn’t explore this enough and there is plenty more character development and individual motives which could have been explored.
Rating – 4
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