It wasn’t that long ago.
The streets were littered with barricades, and at night, you could see the bonfires scattered all along the religious fault lines of the city.
Graffiti covered the walls — an “IRA” slogan here, a “No Pope Here,” there.
And the hatred just seethed, turning husbands and fathers into bomb builders and gunmen, sons into cold-blooded murderers.
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Yann Demange’s “71” takes us back to the swirling maelstrom of the peak of the civil war in Northern Ireland. Set just three years after “The Troubles” began and a year before “Bloody Sunday,” it’s an intricate, intimate thriller about a single soldier’s nightmare day and night on the front lines.
Jack O’Connell of “Unbroken” stars as Gary Hook, a working class recruit into a British Army still divided along class lines. Hook is shipped to Northern Ireland, where he’s exposed to an idealistic, posh upper class lieutenant (Sam Reid of “Belle” and “Anonymous”) and the depths of animosity between Catholic “republicans” and Protestant “loyalists” in Belfast.
Lt. Armitage has some sort of “win their hearts and minds” delusion about the Army’s “peacekeeping” role there. It’s why he orders riot gear left behind as they accompany heavy-handed cops on a raid on the apartment of IRA sympathizers.
A riot ensues, and when circumstances separate Hook and another recruit from their unit, one is summarily executed and Hook flees for his life, through the bowels of the Catholic stronghold, a day and a night of terror, bloody entanglements, wounds and confusion.
Demange, working from a clever, gritty Gregory Burke script, hurls obstacles aplenty at this frightened boy. This last incarnation of “The Troubles” had plenty of infighting, so bloody-minded young turks (Killian Scott plays their leader) are hunting Hook just to execute him, while older, cooler IRA heads (David Wilmot) try to find the lost soldier just to calm the situation.
The foppish but humane Lieutenant wants to ameliorate his blunder and recover his missing man, but the brooding, brutish head of undercover operations (Sean Harris) has other motives.
The journey here is a one in which Hook, if he lives or dies, has his eyes opened to the nature of the fight and his place in it.
“You’re just a piece of meat to them,” a kindly civilian (Richard Dormer) warns him. Catholic women try to protect soldiers. A small loyalist boy (Corey McKinley) spews such hatred that we and Hook wonder if he can be trusted and how long it will be before he becomes a killer.
O’Connell keeps fear close to the surface of his performance, even as flashbacks suggest a tough background that may play a hand in whether Hook lives or dies.
The violence is immediate and personal. Demange, keeping his camera hand-held through the chases through alleys, backyards and apartment blocks, makes this film as visceral an experience as Paul Greengrass’s breakthrough movie, “Bloody Sunday.”
Demange’s movie isn’t nearly as moving as that one. It’s more removed, observing and casting blame for that awful conflict far and wide even as it remains fixed on this one young man’s fate, making us care about that fate. But “71” is rare enough and good enough to make us long for more thrillers with context and consequences, something sorely missing from your average Hollywood action picture.