Film l ‘71 l MA
After the collapse of the Northern Irish civil rights movement, violence between Catholic and Protestant communities across the region set in motion the horrific events of Bloody Sunday on 30 January 1972. The sudden escalation in the city of Belfast is the backdrop to ‘71, a political thriller with nuance and a battered conscience.
This is director Yann Demange’s feature film debut, and star Unbroken’s Jack O’Connell is a young actor clearly destined for great things. Despite the action taking place in 1970s Belfast, the movie feels very relevant to present-day fears of religious violence. The festering hatreds of the Belfast residents – towards one another and the intrusive presence of the British forces within the city– are skillfully drawn out without caricature or cliché.
The plot concerns unlucky soldier Gary Hook (O’Connell), who finds himself trapped on the wrong side of the Falls Road following a disastrous raid on Catholic homes that escalates into a riot. On the run from nationalist gunmen – including Killing Bono’s Martin McCann, who also impresses – Hook spends the night hiding in narrow alleys and back gardens. Most residents stay indoors with the lights out, as to be out on the streets could mean being targeted by a roaming mob.
Hook’s only hope is to somehow make his way back to his barracks. But even if he manages to avoid detection from the gunmen hunting him, undercover agents from the British occupying forces also have him in their sights for having uncovered a dangerous conspiracy.
The main plot is a fish-out-of-water storyline involving a naive British soldier fighting to stay alive in a hostile foreign city. Amusingly, his commanding officer insists that the soldiers are not “leaving this country” – meaning the UK – before the unit sets sail across the Irish sea to Northern Ireland.
What really roots the tragedy of this story though is how it explores the effect of the cycle of violence on the children of Belfast. Two young actors – Barry Keoghan and Corey McKinley – play boys from either side of the conflict who have had hatred instilled in them since birth.
Hook first encounters Keoghan’s Sean at the Falls Road riot, acting as a spotter for Martian McCann’s gun-man. Sean is conflicted about his own desire to become a killer and has the opportunity to shoot Hook, but freezes. Through glimpses of his homelife (his casual lies to his mother who believes he is attending university instead of chasing soldiers through a warren of empty houses) we sense a life misdirected towards violence and death.
McKinley plays Billy, a frankly terrifying young boy Hook meets following a petrol bomb attack on a Catholic neighbourhood. Billy is Loyalist royalty, the nephew of a local Protestant member of good standing within the anti-Catholic paramilitaries. When the boy hears Hook is a soldier, he proudly marches him through a barricade, on the way intimidating anyone who questions his charge’s identity with unlikely bursts of aggression from such a ‘wee man’.
Billy and Sean are the husks left behind after their childhoods have been scooped out. The war will not end, and the path to Bloody Sunday is already set– there are parties on every side, including the British forces, with vested interests in perpetuating the killing. Hook in turn loses his innocence, the hatreds of Belfast an infectious disease he, too, becomes host to.
The film’s message of communities torn apart by distant political expediency carries a continuing resonance even for audiences here in Australia. In the ‘70s, politicians in the Republic and Britain exploited rising tensions between Protestants and Catholics for their own gain. So too, it could be argued, are leaders in Australia exploiting tension and misunderstanding between Christians and Muslims. As in the film, the modern-day rhetoric of hatred disguises underlying causes that have very little to do with religious faith, or race.
Watching ‘71 feels like diving deep below any surface of rationality or sanity, with the closing credits bringing a sense of relief as you surface. But its message continues to be a timely one and we need to understand the true meaning of the British officer’s message to the inexperienced troops being shipped off to Belfast. This is not a foreign country.