It’s rare to find an old-fashioned taut thriller carefully threaded together to keep you on the very edge of your sea throughout. Directed with a sure hand by Yann Demange, who has cut his teeth on television with comedy shows like Man in a Box and the P.C. crime drama Top Boy, this film instantaneously throws you into the deep end of the swimming pool. Shot with an eye for detail that’s amazingly accurate to the period, the sooty exteriors of British industrial, pre-Thatcherite buildings and cobbled streets are superbly photographed by Tat Radcliffe through a haze that’s a kind of gray-scale stucco.
’71 is the story of Gary Hook, a young soldier home on leave in Buxton, Derbyshire, picking up his younger brother, Derren, from a children’s orphanage where he too has once lived and spending the day. Hook is played with a kind of world eating, good-natured, friendly bravado by 23-year-old Jack O’Connell. It’s as if he’s deliberately forgotten something very important.
Then out of nowhere, Hook is on a journey, wearing a uniform, on his way with his regiment across the water to the Troubles. Billeted on folding cots in an abandoned prefabricated schoolhouse, Hook and his best mate, Tommy Thompson (Jack Lowden) and his baby-faced squad get the de rigeur safety and collective unity and security speech from their corporal (Babou Ceesay) that they’ll all be “only be staying here ‘til one of the Paddies shoots you.”
Deployed the following morning, Hook’s regiment arrive at the sectarian city’s dividing line been Protestants and Catholics on the Falls Road. Theoretically only there as back-up for the local police force, the RUC (the infamous Royal Ulster Constabulary), they are sent on a mission to search houses for a hidden cache of Provo (Provisional IRA) armaments in the Catholic area near the Falls-Road frontline.
The chaos of war then descends upon everything as a small-scale riot turns into something much more dangerous as a gunfight begins. The soldiers scurry and Hook is bewildered when a very dirty, scruffy young boy snatches away his rifle. Hook and Thompson give chase through a warren of blind alleys and bomb-ravaged corridors. And it all seems like a real-life up-to-date video game until Tommy Thompson is suddenly blown away by two armed Provo youths. Shocked, Hook then runs and runs, barely making it into another maze of cobbled backstreets.
From then on it’s a straight-up frenetic manhunt as Hook becomes the target for his commander, Lieutenant Armitage (Sam Reid), the Provos and the hush-hush stone-faced Military Reaction Force, a covert intelligence branch of the British Army in liaison with MI-5 who think a lost soldier on the run is an expendable commodity. One adventure trips into another as the orphan-man-child Hook moves mindlessly through deserted streets, ducking away from thrown molotov cocktails and snipers’ bullets accompanied by a Tangerine Dream-type synthesizer soundtrack.
Blown hither and thither by good and bad luck, Hook falls first into the hands of the Protestant paramilitaries, led by a ruthless, potty-mouthed nine-year-old boy (played my the film’s comic relief, the scenery-chewing Corey McKinley) —then into the care of two Catholic Samaritans, Eamon (Richard Dormer) and his daughter Brigid (Charlie Murphy), who debate whether to turn Hook in to the old-school IRA representative Boyle (David Wilmot) or the kill-crazy Quinn (Killian Scott).
Everything then meets its perfect denouement in a last game of savage animals-versus-bait in a rundown tower block. Wow! It’s a non-stop, frenetic English masterpiece and I give it my best recommendation.