Looking to bring The Troubles to the screen, ‘71 and director Yann Demange are deeply set in the horrors of isolation. It is bad enough to feel alone and afraid at the best of times, yet throwing those feelings deep into the heart of Belfast at the height of its turmoil creates a fresh and horribly exciting atmosphere. It is the separation from the United Kingdom that so many fought and died for, and as ‘71 uses this as a backdrop, there is always a worry that its political leanings could spill out in a confused and tangled mess. It is hard to say for sure what happened, and while it is still very much a hot topic issue, it is hard to know where Demange and his script lies in this breakdown of uniting Ireland, with or without the influence of the United Kingdom.
It does not matter necessarily, so long as leading man Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is likeable. He is the cool head prevailing above rabid riots and brutal beatings. Escalation is common and worrying. People with firm beliefs on both sides collide together and take on immoral actions for what they believe is right. It’s a tried and tested theory, one that has yielded results in the real world. ‘71 never demonstrates a strong display, just violence and that unbridled tension between so many groups. It is somewhat similar to that of Shorta, a political devolution mired by the strong action and tension it can display. Throughout both these pieces, there is a feeling that the history and politics of the time are just backgrounds for the action. It does much of the heavy lifting when wishing to represent some strife or struggle for the leading character.
While that fight for survival may be interesting as a drama and thriller, it is the action that falters here. Demange has good bits of tension, but they are directed with shaking hands on the camera and a thick and heavy soundtrack. We can hear the shouts of pain and the scuffling of feet, it’s just hard to make it out as the camera rocks back and forth, unable to focus on one bit of tension. There are too many close scrapes, though, and not many of them work. Mismatched dialogue brings out characters that serve as hosts for each group, but does little to characterise them. O’Connell portrays Hook with a depth to his character, but much of that is produced through interacting with these other, barely engaging characters. Barry Keoghan and Sam Harris feature, but they feel stifled and underwhelming. It is not because they are bad in their roles, but they are never given a chance to show how good they could be if utilised correctly.
The Troubles were a violent period for all involved, and there are still instabilities to be found. ‘71 captures that and does not portray it as anything more than we the audience know it as. It was horrible, brutal, and it is concerning how those problems linger today. As a way to keep the peace between audience and artist, ‘71 does not pick a side. Not really, anyway. It is from the perspective of the British forces, but they’re as corrupt as the rest under the eyes of Demange. Everyone from all walks of life aids Hook in some way. A can-can of “there’s good in every one of us.” which gels well for a limited time. Demange does well to balance the various groups, portraying them all as exceptionally self-invested and cruel. Those few we focus on for a tad longer than the rest shine through like beacons of hope in providing unity to Belfast. At least it doesn’t feel overly sentimental. Historically sound, well performed and a lingering feeling of fear throughout it all, there’s something quite fantastic about how Demange brings the real-world troubles into the realm of dramatized re-enactment.