Revisiting ’71 in Belfast

About a half an hour into Yann Demange’s directorial debut, “’71,” we’re seated behind young British soldiers in a classroom. Like them, we’re getting a brief lesson about “the Troubles” in Belfast.

“This is the front lines, boys,” says a commanding officer, pointing at a map of Northern Ireland. It’s sectioned into clashing reds and greens, the color-codes for the civil war’s main participants. “Catholics and protestants living side by side, but at each other’s throats, divided by the Divis flats,” he says.

That, of course, is the cliff notes version of the 30-year conflict — indicative of Demange’s 99-minute movie. This 10-second soundbite is the only bit of context we’re given before we’re thrown into the war-ravaged streets of 1971-Belfast.

Like the film’s protagonist, a wide-eyed British soldier named Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), we’re strangers to the Troubles of Ireland. The country and its conflict are seized and rewritten by conquering British forces. With each rewriting, their language (Gaelic) and stories become an even more distant memory.

That’s how “’71” handles the Troubles. The “victors” have taken Ireland’s history and have collectively rewritten it into a universal one. Ireland is directed by France (Demange), written by Scotland (playwright Gregory Burke) and filmed in the U.K. (Sheffield, Liverpool and Blackburn). The film is Irish in the way that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day: throwing back those Irish Car Bombs while decked out in green.

There’s plenty of car bombs in this film, but “’71” isn’t really about the opposing Irish factions blowing each other up. The narrative’s hijacked by this young British soldier who’s accidentally left behind by his platoon.

Hook inadvertently becomes both the vehicle for us to see the Irish peoples and a symbol for the conflict. The IRA want him dead. The British troops, stationed to assist the Royal Ulster Constabulary, want him back. It’s a deadly game of capture/eliminate the flag and the players are either fighting for a United Kingdom or an independent Ireland.

Of course, this game isn’t without its casualties. Hook’s British comrade is shot suddenly and violently. Buildings blow up. Cars and busses are set on fire. The boys with guns are kids with mums and sisters.

Among them include a perceptive, young Loyalist boy (Corey McKinley) who’s as spirited as the young Gavroche from “Les Miserables.” McKinley is fantastic, holding his own among men twice his side. With a stick in his hand, he boldly leads a mute Hook through a barricade of Loyalist men, who hand him and his comrade a beer. This self-assured boy’s about the same size and build as Hook’s timid younger brother, Darren (Harry Verity) — who’s waiting for him back in Derbyshire.

Demange and Burke fill their film with wonderfully poetic foils. Hook and his platoon’s first Irish opponents are a group of rowdy children, throwing water balloons rather than hand grenades. The British soldiers laugh when they realize the absurdity of the situation, but in subsequent scenes, children aren’t as harmless and enemies aren’t so clear-cut.

“’71” is a coming-of-age story of sorts, which teaches us as much as it teaches its characters. Like the “Dubliners” in James Joyce’s short stories, these characters are in a state of paralysis. Catholics and Protestants point their guns at each other in a Mexican standoff while the sun sets on both their dreams.

“’71” was written by Gregory Burke and directed by Yann Demange. 

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