Very well made and with some excellent acting, Yann Demange’s ’71 really manages to recreate the atmosphere of the early seventies, and I found it exciting from start to finish. Most of the film also seemed very realistic, and the brilliantly shot riot scene at the beginning does a wonderful job of showing how it must have felt for young, inexperienced soldiers who’d had no training in police work or crowd control to be heavily outnumbered by an enraged and violent mob. The soldiers are the ones with the guns, but they’re soon running for their lives. Even though officially they haven’t even left the country, they find themselves in a totally alien world, a point which is effectively illustrated when a kid asks Gary, the main character, whether he’s a Catholic or a Protestant. He says he doesn’t really know, as he wasn’t really brought up to follow any religion, and the kid looks at him as if he’s mad: how can anyone not know such an important, life-defining fact about themselves?
What also comes across very well is the complexity and confusion of the political situation, with factional in-fighting on the republican side and the British undercover guys doing dirty deals with everyone on both sides, so that in the end it becomes very difficult to know who can be trusted and who might be a traitor. It was interesting to see that when the soldiers are given their initial briefing they’re shown a map of Belfast and are told which are the ‘Protestant areas: friendly’, and the ‘Catholic areas: hostile’. Officially the army was there as a neutral peacekeeping force to keep the two sides apart, but that wasn’t how they were perceived by the locals on either side of the divide. To all intents and purposes the army had been brought in to help the Protestant police force fight the IRA, and everyone, including the army, was very much aware of the fact.
— SPOILER WARNING !!! —
Important plot details might be revealed beyond this point…
So far, so good, but once the main narrative gets going, with Gary lost in a hostile environment and being searched for by different groups who want him dead for different reasons, I felt that slightly too much realism was sacrificed for the purposes of entertainment and excitement. He wanders around completely empty streets, with not a policeman or soldier in sight, just stumbling from the Catholic to the Protestant stronghold and back again, even though there were road blocks and barriers separating the two. Following the explosion he’s in a seemingly safe Protestant area and only has to wait for the first police or army patrol to show up, but at that point we were only half way through the film and I wondered how it was going to progress from there. No problem: Gary just wanders off into the mist, he’s soon back in IRA territory and the excitement can continue. So, although most of the film felt very realistic, some parts seemed anything but, and this was reflected in the comments on IMDb. A surprising number of these were by people who claimed to have grown up in Northern Ireland or even in Belfast at the period in which the film was set, and they were about equally divided as to whether it showed the place exactly like it was, or whether it was all a complete fantasy.
The final shoot-out is also a bit o.t.t., and could almost have come out of a typical Hollywood spy thriller or western. And another point which bothered me just a little bit was the way we are shown Gary in his home setting at the start and end of the film. We see that he’s grown up in a children’s home and has a loving relationship with a young guy still living in the place, probably his younger brother. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the film, and is presumably only included to make sure that we, the audience, find Gary a nice guy and are suitably sympathetic to his plight when he gets into trouble later on. And even if this background material served a purpose at the start of the film, did we really have to see him going back to the children’s home at the end for a happy reunification scene? The ending was a bit of an anticlimax altogether: Gary is rescued, the dirty business he’s stumbled upon gets hushed up in about two minutes of dialogue, he throws his dog tags into the sea to let us know that he’s disillusioned with the army, and he gets the bus across the peaceful English scenery to his happy ending. Surely that could have been better.
In spite of these slight criticisms this is a powerful film which, for me at least, paints a very believable picture of what Belfast must have felt like in 1971: a complete Hell-hole in which you really wouldn’t want to find yourself. But I knew that already, just as I also knew that war is terrible, religious bigotry and conflict are terrible and people can be terrible, so this film didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know. In other words this was a good film, but not quite interesting enough to qualify as a masterpiece.
|seen||02/04/2015, at the cinema|