I don’t know about you, but I’m not terribly up on my British and Irish history. Because of this, I don’t know a whole lot about The Troubles, the urban war between the IRA and the British military over the national status of Northern Ireland. If ’71 is any indication, the conflict was complex, factionalized, and not necessarily the will or in the interests of the average Irish citizen, and my ignorance of this topic may have harmed my appreciation of the film. However, that doesn’t totally prevent one’s enjoyment of this tense action thriller.
The story follows a young British soldier named Hook who becomes separated from his unit in a hostile Catholic part of Belfast. Alone, with hostile factions of the IRA warring all around him for the right to fight off the British, Hook must rely on the assistance of civilian strangers in order to survive the night. Any of the people he meets would stand something to gain by turning him over to the IRA, but it is ultimately compassion that wins out amongst the constant threats of violent outbursts.
This is a vastly simplified explanation of the plot, and that is because, quite honestly, some of the greater intricacies escaped me. The film is decidedly minimalist on dialogue, which in and of itself is not a bad thing, but it does mean that exposition is scarce, and consequently that the significance of all the film’s major players can get lost in the shuffle without a clear understanding of who they are and what their motivations are. Again, I think this may have a lot to do with my personal ignorance of the political circumstances of the underlying conflict, but some greater explanation would have generally been better appreciated.
However, at the end of the day, ’71 is not trying to be a political drama. It doesn’t really have anything poignant to say about either the Irish or the British or those caught in between. Rather, this is a straight-up action thriller, and at that is succeeds marvelously. Never quite knowing who is friend and who is foe puts Hook in constant survival mode, desperately struggling against anyone and everyone, even against those who patch his wounds or shelter him against his pursuers. Despite the complex political climate, the film deals with its characters in a very black-and-white morality, but many characters remain shadowed in shades of gray until it comes time to make their move. This makes for a very tense and very engaging experience.
So, on the whole, I quite enjoyed ’71. It seems to fashion itself as a more sophisticated alternative to the likes of American urban action pieces, and while I don’t think it succeeds to that extent, it certainly manages to engross with its bleak survivalist attitude. Check it out if you get the chance.
Am I alone in not knowing a whole lot about The Troubles? I was certainly aware of its existence, just not the political intricacies. Validate my ignorance in the comments below.