Getting caught behind enemy lines probably qualifies as a soldier’s worst nightmare, particularly if that soldier happens to be alone.
That’s exactly what happens to Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) in the gripping, war-torn ’71, a hyper-agitated helping of cinema set in Belfast during the tumultuous period of “the troubles.”
Belfast is not a place Hook or anyone else wants to be with bullets flying and kids throwing bags of feces at the British troops, who are supposed be serving as peacekeepers.
The British soldiers aren’t helped by a nervous commanding officer (Sam Reid) who leaves his troops ill-equipped to deal with the chaotic episode in which Hook is separated from his fellow soldiers.
O’Connell (Starred Up and Unbroken) belongs at the forefront of any list of important young British actors. Totally at home in a movie that relies on visceral charge, O’Connell embodies all of Hook’s resourcefulness, panic and vulnerability. He gives a jolting, live-wire of a performance.
First-time director Yann Demange brings an immersive quality to this story of a British soldier on the run in a political environment so complex it can’t help but erupt into chaos.
Protestants are battling with Catholics and the British soldiers are thrown into the middle of all this, along with unscrupulous undercover agents who try to play both sides from what appears to be a non-existent middle.
Demange seems less interested in sorting out political issues than in making a movie in which Private Hook must run for his life, a breathless flight full of convincingly lethal possibilities.
Hook — a product of British foster homes — is not fighting for a cause: He’s simply trying to survive, and the various Irish factions don’t pose the only threat to him.
At various points, Hook receives help from the locals, notably when a father and daughter (Richard Dormer and Charlie Murphy) provide him with shelter. But for Hook, there’s no real comfort: Any situation can turn volatile in an instant.
Screenwriter Gregory Burke doesn’t spell out Hook’s background, but it’s safe to assume that he joined the Army because he had few other options. Early on, we learn that Hook’s younger brother (Harry Verity) is stuck in the same children’s home that presumably spawned Hook.
After an institutionalized upbringing of extreme indifference, the army probably looked like a pretty good deal.
The point here is that soldiers such as Hook quickly become pawns in a game that they don’t really understand — not that anyone else understands it, either. Hook is as much a victim as he is peacekeeper.
We emerge from this movie in somewhat the same battered state as Hooks: We may not totally comprehend what happened, but we sure as hell don’t want to re-visit this nightmare again.
That’s probably a good thing: Movies such as ’71 give us a taste — cautionary, one hopes — of how it feels to be tossed into a world in which there are no safe havens.
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