The Northern Ireland conflict isn’t easy to unravel and understand. As the film “’71” demonstrates, they didn’t call its internecine struggle the Troubles for nothing. The film throws the viewer into the middle of one of its worst years, unprepared, much the way newly minted British army Pvt. Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell from “Unbroken”) must face his duty when he’s cut off one morning from his squad in Belfast.
The thriller centers on this 24-hour period, soon after Hook has been through basic training and deployed. When an attempted raid on a suspected weapons stash in the city’s Catholic-nationalist sector devolves into a riot, Hook and another soldier are accidentally abandoned in the ensuing retreat. A young and impetuous Irish Republican Army member shoots Hook’s companion, forcing Hook to flee and find his way back alone to his barracks — not an easy feat in a city with an undergirding social and political structure as convoluted as its maze of streets and burning vehicles.
The movie would be engrossing enough if it were just the story of Hook groping his way back in the dark, block-by-block. But director Yann Demange, making his film debut with a script by Scottish playwright Gregory Burke, also interweaves with a handful of expertly portrayed secondary characters the multitude of warring agendas in Northern Ireland at that time, including the main factions of the recently split IRA, the opposing Irish loyalist paramilitary forces and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland’s official police force. All seem at odds, in one form or another, with each other and with the Brits, who ostensibly are there to help.
Actually “’71,” funded in part by the British Film Institute, at first might seem a little lenient on the British and their military involvement. But it eventually demonstrates that there were no blameless parties. Those who prefer a clearer delineation between good guys and bad guys might balk at the way “’71” leaves the interpretation of guilt and innocence to the viewer. In this intelligent and complicated thriller, not even the protagonist is a hero. Hook is too much like us, too busy trying to survive and comprehend bewildering machinations beyond his control to be a hero. (R) 100 min. S
“’71” is available to rent through streaming services and Redbox starting July 7.