’71 is a searing depiction of the Troubles, in part because its director has no personal stake in the debate.
The Troubles that plagued Northern Ireland are always going to be a sensitive subject when discussed on film. There have been great films about the period, like In The Name Of The Father, but it requires tact to make sure you’re not simplifying or putting your own preferred morality on a hugely complicated situation. Given that the Troubles are inextricably tied to religion and politics, two subjects that are almost guaranteed to result in arguments, it takes guts to make a film about them, especially if you have no connection with the history.
It’s Demange’s perspective as something of an outsider to the Troubles that makes ’71 so compelling
’71 is Yann Demange’s debut film; he’s not Irish, and he has no personal connection to the Troubles. Demange has said in interviews that he was attracted to the project simply because he liked the script, as opposed to having a particular desire to make a film about this period of history. There’s absolutely a good argument that this subject matter would benefit from a director with a personal stake in it, who actually had some direct experience of the Troubles, but it’s actually Demange’s perspective as something of an outsider that makes ’71 so compelling.
Because he had no stake in the conflict, his film refuses to take sides. It’s abundantly clear in ’71 that the Troubles were a horrendously complicated situation, where the idea of clear-cut right and wrong just doesn’t apply. You have to paint in shades of grey, and it’s Demange’s ability to examine the conflict from without that allows him to present the Troubles impartially.
’71 is anything but detached, and it brings a thrillingly visceral immediacy to the nightmare of being trapped in Belfast while riots and shootings are going on. Demange’s refusal to write an arbitrary morality into the proceedings in no way diminishes the impact, and the film veers close to horror at times as a result of the awful things that inevitably happen. But the fact that the director feels no need to present one side as being ‘right’ allows the true nature of any conflict to come to the surface: there are, without exception, good and bad on both sides in every war.
The murky nature of the Troubles rears its head when it becomes apparent that the Loyalists’ methods are just as morally dubious as their enemies’
Since Gary, the protagonist superbly played by Jack O’Connell, is a British soldier sent to keep the peace in Belfast, and who ends up cut off from his unit and hunted by the IRA, it would have been quite easy for the Irish Republicans to end up as the de facto villains. But the murky nature of the Troubles soon rears its head when it becomes apparent that the Loyalists’ methods are just as morally dubious as their enemies’: perhaps the most memorable character is the foul-mouthed child soldier played by Corey McKinley (giving a terrific performance) who tries to help Gary get to safety.
There are sympathetic characters who are members of the IRA, as well as hot-headed young soldiers out for British blood; likewise, there are Loyalists who try to help Gary get back to his barracks, but it’s ultimately the British army itself which arguably comes out of the film looking worst. They cut deals with both Unionists and Republicans, while gladly screwing over people they’ve agreed to help if they think they’ll benefit from it, all the while presenting the facade of unquestionable moral rightness which Demange has made very clear cannot exist in this scenario.
By having the British army claim that they’re in the right regardless of what they do, ’71 highlights the hypocrisy inherent to any claim that one side or the other was the ‘correct’ side in the Troubles. By the end, the audience will be as repulsed by the whole affair as Gary ultimately is.
Considering how many films there have been on this subject, and how many more there are likely to be, it’s probably too soon to say how ’71 stacks up against other films about the Troubles. It’s certainly one of the best British films of the year so far, though, and is a stunning accomplishment for a first-time film director. Hopefully we’ll see much more from Demange in the future.
All images: StudioCanal