Sunday, 19 October 2014

'71

Charlie Chan Says...

On the streets of Belfast, trouble's in store
For a British Private left by his Corps

★★★★★


For once, an alliteration-free review, due to the sheer brilliance of the creative team and harrowing nature of the subject matter, both of which combine to electrifying effect and render the cinemagoer speechless, a helpless bystander to an horrific chain of events, the devastating effects of which can be seen a mile off but cannot be prevented. Director Yann Demange and writer Gregory Burke take a well-deserved bow!

"Posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts. It’s all a lie. They don’t care about you. You’re just a piece of meat to them. A piece of meat.” A damning indictment and frighteningly accurate portrayal of the British Army circa 1971 (and now?) by an ex-army medic and IRA sympathiser attending to the wounds of a young soldier caught up in the bloody aftermath of an operation gone wrong.

That young soldier is Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), a new recruit preparing to embark on his first tour of duty. “To Germany?” he optimistically pipes up during a routine morning inspection, no doubt hoping for a gentle introduction to the rough and tumble of military life and perhaps even his first trip abroad. “To Belfast,” barks a hot-headed corporal. “To your own fucking country.”


And my, what a city and what a fucking country Belfast and Northern Ireland are at the height of the Troubles in the early 1970s. Windows are boarded up, half bricks and urine balloons are tossed into the air like confetti, buildings are reduced to rubble, fires rage in street corners, bullets squeal past your ears like bats in flight and careful consideration must be paid when asked to reply to the loaded question of “how’s your father?” or more appropriately “who’s your father?” A Catholic sauntering along the Shankhill Road or a Protestant taking a wrong turn onto the Falls Road stand as much chance of survival as a convicted paedophile in an open prison.

As for Operation All Gone Pete Tong … Private Hook’s unit, under the plummy-voiced and peacock-feathered leadership of Lieutenant Armitage (Sam Reid), is deployed on a supposedly brief and benign peacekeeping mission in the Republican stronghold of west Belfast to maintain law and order as officers from another unit conduct an (albeit heavy-handed) arms raid in the home of a suspected terrorist.

A rowdy crowd gathers in the street. Passions run high, voices rise and anger in search of a target flares. And before you can say “there’s nothing to see here, move along”, a young boy breaks through the army line, steals a soldier’s rifle and makes off with it down the road. Private Hook and one of his equally wet behind the ears colleagues are ordered to give chase. The result of which is a body bag for his compadre and a frenetic run for his life through the back gardens and labyrinthine closes of a built-up housing estate for Private Hook. Pursued by a couple of gun-toting head honchos from the provisional IRA, he dives into an outdoor toilet for refuge, where he resides until the sun sinks behind the horizon and the relative safety of darkness descends.


To reveal more about the plot would be a disservice to anyone who hasn’t had the privilege of seeing this great movie yet. Therefore, without giving too much away, let’s just say that Private Hook finds himself lost behind enemy lines and is used as a pawn (or in the words of the ex-army medic “just a piece of meat”) by both loyalist and republican paramilitary groups as well as the British Army and Her Majesty's Government – none of whom emerge from the field of battle smelling of roses.

And this last point really is the main point of the film. Violence breeds violence. War causes more harm than good. Soldiers pay the ultimate price with their lives, while morally bankrupt politicians and avaricious businessmen wash their hands of blood and line their pockets with gold. And through all the smoke and mirrors, the lives of hundreds and thousands of innocent men, women and children are senselessly and barbarically snuffed out. And for what? Politics? Queen and Country? The Rule of Law? Aye, yer maw. It's about power. Power to access oil. Power to access sea ports. Power to access slave labour. Power to rule!


Power and politics aside, the sheer brilliance of this film lies in the exquisite craftsmanship of writer Gregory Burke, Scottish playwright famed for his award-winning stage production of Black Watch for the National Theatre of Scotland; director Yann Demange, for whom ’71 is his feature debut; and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe, who excelled recently in yet another hit British film Pride.

With minimal lighting and up close and personal handheld camera work, this dynamic creative triumvirate paint a harrowing picture of a dark and sinister underworld lurking with danger. The dialogue is pared back to the bare bones, entrusting the image to develop the narrative. And the sparing and daring use of long continual shots of silent subjects – reminiscent of Steve McQueen’s masterpiece 12 Years a Slave – drive home the point and create just enough space for the audience to step inside the frame and reflect upon the personal and political implications of the moment.

I cannot recommend '71 highly enough. It’s terrific and horrific in equal measure. And if you only ever go to the cinema a couple of times a year, pay to see this film. You won't be disappointed.



Rating: 15
Release: 17 Oct 2014
Running Time: 99 mins
Director: Yann Demange
Writer: Gregory Burke
Cast: Jack O'ConnellSean HarrisPaul AndersonSam Reid, Richard Dormer, Charlie MurphySam HazeldeanKillian Scott, David Wilmot, Barry Keoghan, Babou Ceesay, Corey McKinley

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