’71 is a war film about a British soldier in Belfast during the troubles left behind on a routine mission gone awry. He’s stranded and is trying, for the entire film, to get back to his barracks.
’71 adds a fresh perspective on the Troubles, in that it is told from the perspective of a British soldier. This is no tired rehash of old material. Nevertheless, it does have certain similarities to the films that have come before it. The shaky realism and extreme close ups are reminiscent of Greenwoods’ Bloody Sunday or the solitary British soldier in dire straits: Jordan’s Crying Game the list goes on.
All the usual war film tropes are present. There are interesting, experimental techniques used by the director but the audience isn’t deprived their share of action and suspense. “Posh c**ts telling thick c**ts to kill poor c**ts,” one enlightened local tells Hook. “You’re just a piece of meat to them.” This we presume is the films message. War is bad. No controversy there.
It’s how the director tackles the issue that’s interesting, not the idea itself. The music and camera techniques all conspire to create an atmosphere of delirium. He has quickly found himself in a situation he doesn’t understand. The films style mimics his panic and disorientation, and forces on the audience a similar sense of unease. He is innocent and we fear for him. There are elements in the film similar to Tarkovsky’s, Ivan’s Childhood in that we root for a relatively innocent soldier behind enemy lines. In that case the soldier was a child, which increases our emotional commitment, but Hook is vulnerable and in many ways quite childlike, and we do want him to find his way, which adds to the suspense.
He blunders he’s way through the streets and Belfast that take on a nightmare quality. Death and hatred reside in every corner. The distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, friend and foe, quickly dissipate and he moves through the complexity of troubles era Belfast like a Virgil-less Dante. It’s a dirty war. One’s motives and intentions rarely reflect their actions. Subterfuge is the norm.
Nonetheless we are enthralled by the violence: the old problem of the impossibility of an anti-war film rears its head.
The film ultimately succeeds in highlighting the perverse reality of the troubles, and by extension war itself. The contagion of conflict has spread into every home and can burst through any door at any time, and we’re there to watch as it does, gleefully.
Image and trailer courtesy of Optimum Pictures.