’71 (Roadside Attractions, R)

71_75It’s a brilliant set piece by director Yann Demange that feels absolutely real, like a series of news photos come to life.

 

 

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You hear the blows, leather on flesh, before you see them. Young men in the British army are proving themselves in the boxing ring, one of several tests of manhood they must pass before they’re considered ready to serve as soldiers. They run down forest roads, crawl through muddy screams, help each other over a log wall, and practice their sharpshooting on the rifle range.

Unfortunately, all that training proves to be of very little use when the regiment is assigned to Northern Ireland to, theoretically, assert British Will over the rebellious Irish nationalists during the time euphemistically referred to as “the Troubles.” Neither is the paint-by-numbers briefing delivered to the soldiers, which attempts to consolidate the complex geography of Belfast neighborhoods into a few simple rules.

A violent confrontation in the streets early in the film drives home how useless the soldiers’ preparation really is. It’s a brilliant set piece by director Yann Demange (a first-time feature director with extensive experience in television) that feels absolutely real, like a series of news photos come to life. Traditional rules of military engagement don’t offer much guidance for the soldiers in the narrow and mazelike streets, where children pelt them with feces and women spit on them, and where the possibility of being seriously injured or even killed is also very real.

Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell, who previously played Louis Zamperini in Unbroken) is the central character in ’71, but you don’t learn his name until well into the film. It’s part of the strategy of screenwriter Gregory Burke (who also wrote the stage play/television movie Black Watch) and Demange to emphasize the very ordinariness of Hook and the other characters in the film, and is the opposite approach to the personality-focused filmmaking typical of mainstream American features (Unbroken being a case in point). We learn very little about Hook or anyone else, beyond the fact that he has a young brother or son who appears to live in a group home and with whom he spends time when he can.

Hook and a fellow soldier become separated from their regiment, and after the other soldier is killed, Hook flees into the rabbit warren of Belfast’s back streets. Most of the action takes place over less than 24 hours, as he must try to avoid being killed and find his way back to his regiment, in an environment where nothing seems to be clear and one wrong step could result in death. Gradually, other characters emerge, including a young loyalist boy who offers Hook help, an ex-army medic who tends to his wounds, and a teenager who shifts from helping his younger sister with her homework to joining the manhunt for the missing British soldier.

There’s a definite thriller aspect to ’71, but the film does nothing to glorify either side. It’s also a bit of a hero’s journey, although the endpoint of Hook’s experiences is not a beautiful princess or a chest full of gold, but a better understanding about how the world in general, and the British army in specific, works. Although ‘71 is set in a specific place and time, the issues it raises apply to any guerilla war, including recent American experiences in Iraq.

’71 lacks the easy payoffs on many war films, but it’s all the more absorbing for that. The storytelling is mostly oblique and quite dense, in part because traditional signposts are omitted, a choice that may alienate some audience members but proves rewarding for those willing to do their own thinking. Tat Radcliffe’s unfussy cinematography is immersive, while Chris Oddy’s production design is absolutely convincing in recreating the gritty atmosphere of back-alley Belfast in 1971. | Sarah Boslaugh

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