Friday, March 06, 2015

[Film] '71 (2014)

Directed by Yann Demange, this is a film about a British squaddie (played by Gary Hook) sent to Belfast in 1971. You get the sense that like most of his unit, he had never previously heard of Belfast; their officer has to explain to them that they will still be in the United Kingdom. While out in West Belfast he becomes separated from his unit and has to try and get back home while being hunted by an IRA hit squad. I first became aware of it when I saw a poster for it while attending a folk horror conference in Belfast and it struck me that the concept has some similarities with all that folk horror business. The protagonist is an outsider in a location where things are strange, the locals unfriendly and alliances shifting. The urban setting is perhaps a new twist.

Because the film is told very much from the point of view of the soldier, there is relatively little sense of the politics and background of the Northern Ireland conflict. The viewer has to infer as much as they want to from conversations and things observed. While the best bits of the film might be the relatively few scenes in which the soldier is being chased around West Belfast, the film is nevertheless more than being a straight high octane actioner. By the end of it you do have a sense of the murky world of the struggle at that time, with undercover soldiers supplying bombs to (incompetent) loyalist paramilitaries and running double agents in the IRA factions.

The film begins with scenes in which the soldier is undergoing basic training in Britain. I was struck by how different these were to the training scenes in Full Metal Jacket, say. While the trainers were shouting at the trainees, a gratuitously abusive element seemed to be lacking and there was a sense that the training was about imparting skills that would keep soldiers alive rather than just breaking them mentally. Apart from the shifty undercover soldiers, the army is portrayed relatively positively, at least towards itself. The soldier's unit is headed by a dimwitted Rupert from central casting, but his heart does at least seem to be in the right place, and with the rank and file soldiers and NCOs there is a sense of them looking out for each other. The undercover soldiers and the more senior officers are different: they seem to have been morally corrupted by their role.

On Twitter I read Graham Linehan saying of the film that it suffers from having the main character becoming essentially inactive in the second half of the film. After actively seeking to stay alive in the first half he becomes almost entirely reactive, with his life and welfare relying on the decisions of others. In some ways that criticism is valid though it perhaps misses that by the second half the soldier has been through one incident of an extremely traumatic nature (physically and mentally) and is not really in a position to do very much. The change also works in plot terms as it allows for a widening of point of view, to the various British Army actors, to IRA cadres in West Belfast, and to the ordinary people of the city into whose lives he descends.

I have also heard one or two people grumbling about a film set during the Northern Ireland conflict taking the point of view of a British soldier (rather than, say, heroic members of the struggle for Irish freedom). They may have a point, in that it will be a while before anyone makes a film portraying the Lads as the heroes. But this film is too wise to the ambiguities of the Northern Ireland conflict to be a British equivalent of John Wayne's The Green Berets. And a film about a soldier lost alone in hostile territory is always going to be more interesting than one about people making bombs out of fertiliser in their attic.

The music is by David Holmes, who is himself from Northern Ireland, and is very impressive in context.

image source (Recent Movie Posters)

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