The track record of films that have covered The Troubles – the violent swell protests originating in Northern Ireland and spread across mainland Europe from the late 1960s to the 90s – have not been favorable. While critical acclaim was showered on films like Jim Sheridan’s The Boxer and James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer, I found most of these exercises to be straightforward in their characterization and overly complicated in their plotting – rendering these enterprises as having a lot of ideas but not having the vessel by which to explicate them.
Yann Demange’s ’71, his debut feature, is a better effort than the aforementioned films, insofar that it addresses its political setting as a backdrop for more humanistic concerns - primarily as a film about the crawl for survival in a place that deems you an outsider. ‘71’s a fleet-footed effort for about half of its runtime, anchored by another notably strong performance from Jack O’Connell (the lead in David McKenzie’s Starred Up) and a welcome meat-and-potatoes screenplay from Gregory Burke that doesn’t linger too much on political melodrama but it still drives its points through. But what does strike me as dubious is Demange’s work behind the camera which distills the guttural impact of the picture through his ill-deployed handheld camera.
Gary Hook (O’Connell) is first seen training with his squadron, where a great deal of foreshadowing details his commitment to his fellow troops. We quickly learn that Hook has a brother, and before he’s deployed to Belfast, spends the day with him. It’s a touching, albeit on the nose sequence that lays the moral groundwork for Hook’s values and ambitions. Deployed to Belfast in what was to be a routine operation, Hook finds himself playing crowd control as angry protesters become increasingly volatile, eventually putting the kibosh on the whole operation and leaving Hook as a sitting duck in IRA territory.
Demange gets a good deal of mileage, literally and figuratively, out of O’Connell’s mounting panic as the day turns to night in Belfast. Akin to the anxiety felt by Paul Hackett in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, we see Hook go through the ringer, perpetually set back by rebel forces. One is to empathize with Hook’s moral and physical pummeling, but the effect is neutralized through Demange’s technique – his handheld camera movement grows tiresome quickly, particularly as the film enters its nighttime setting. There’s a lack of visual clarity involved that I suppose speaks to the Troubles itself, but at times Demange’s perpetual zooming and shaky camera registers as a nuisance rather than a thematic device.
O’Connell’s taciturn performance is the real highlight here, with its notable calibrations made as panic overwhelms the green soldier. But as the film grips you from the onset, it relinquishes that hold mid way, incapable of bottling up the trauma, anxiety, and dread that defined its earlier portions. ’71 impresses so much from its early going that one can’t help but feel disappointment by the film’s end – as if a promise was left unfulfilled.