First, the good news. This is a fast moving and utterly gripping thriller. It is set in 1971 — of course — and it tells the story of a young squaddie (a British foot soldier) who is sent to Belfast. At this time Northern Ireland was the hellish scene of sectarian violence and terrorism with the Catholics and Protestants at each other's throats and the IRA at war with Britain.
Our hero is Hook, played by Jack O'Connell, who was so great in Starred Up. O'Connell is a gifted actor with a likable quality and a highly expressive face (great smile). He's obviously going to be a big star. That's Hollywood calling, Jack.
And O'Connell is lucky enough to be in a movie superbly directed by Yann Demange who has a background in TV drama and music videos. '71 is magnificently shot, and made to look like it was filmed on 1971 film stock. The terrific gritty script, which exudes authenticity is by Gregory Burke, a Scottish playwright, famed for his stage drama Black Watch. It always helps when the writer obviously knows his stuff. The movie also has one of the finest music scores of the year, by David Holmes.
'71 follows the harrowing experiences of Hook when he is separated from his regiment during a riot and is trapped behind enemy lines, fleeing for his life and hiding from IRA gunmen. The characters are beautifully drawn, the dialogue is great (and often hilarious — in the midst of this hellish action).
The script is also particularly strong on the internecine conflicts which divide the IRA, and the IRA's strangely symbiotic relationship with the unscrupulous British intelligence service, supposedly their deadly enemy.
So, why isn't the movie an unqualified masterpiece? Ah, those three things... First, when Hook is on the run, chased by assassins, he has an opportunity to pick up a handgun dropped by one of his pursuers. He doesn't do it. This was so ludicrous it jolted me out of the movie for several minutes afterwards. No trained soldier, indeed no sentient human being, would have acted like this. Such behaviour may serve the needs of the narrative, but it spoils the film — and would have been easy to fix.
Similarly, Hook needs to cover his army uniform shirt so hostiles won't instantly spot that he's a soldier. And he resourcefully steals a sweater from a clothesline to do just this. But later in the film the sweater gets removed and he fails to put it back on, even though he apparently could easily have done so. Again, a distracting lack of realism.
And the last flaw? Well, despite only being 100 minutes long, this movie has more endings than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I understand the desire of the film makers to give the characters and situation the resolution they deserve, but this is still self indulgent. Personally I would have ended on the shot of the guy walking down the corridor...
With utter unfairness I've decided to blame all these deficiencies on the director, rather than the writer. Sorry, Yann.
None of this is to suggest that you shouldn't see '71 — you should see it immediately. It's just that what is one of the best films of the year could easily have been one of the best films of the decade.
(Image credits: the large (white) movie poster is from Imp Awards. The smaller poster is from Flickering Myths. The stills are from a Guardian review.)