Though not on a par with the Cold War, the Irish Troubles offer filmmakers a lot to work with when it comes to themes (compromised ideals and loyalties) and mirror worlds (appearance and reality). Though not on a par with such masterpieces as John Ford’s “The Informer” (1935) or Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game” (1992), Yann Demange’s impressive film debut, “ ’71,” set in Belfast in the bloody year of the title, churns out dread, suspense, and hellish splendor with its derelict cityscapes and breakneck action.
What it lacks is a central character with the depth, detail, and glowing malignancy of the film’s Belfast (simulated in Liverpool), an apocalyptic ruin infested with Yeats’s “weasels fighting in a hole.” Played by rising British star Jack O’Connell (who also took a licking in “Unbroken”), Private Hook (an allusion to the malcontent in the great 1962 “Zulu”?) is more of a piñata than a protagonist. He prepares for his punishment in boot camp, stumbling with his unit over an unforgiving obstacle course in the countryside. Along with the physical skills, he learns the importance of helping your fellow soldier. But the training proves useless once he’s shipped to a treeless, smoking Belfast. Especially the helping bit. As a character points out unnecessarily, as far as the army is concerned, soldiers are all just pieces of meat.
Hook’s hazing continues with a patrol in the Catholic sector of the city, where cursing schoolboys greet the Brits with tossed bricks, feces, and bags of urine. Then the real ordeal begins. Separated from the rest of the soldiers and alone, Hook finds himself not so much a pawn as a pinball batted back and forth from one side of the Belfast inferno to the other.
Or are there any sides? They blur into a single malevolent force. Hunted by the radical IRA, the more moderate IRA, the Protestant Loyalists, his own unit, and an ambiguous, sinister operative who looks very weaselly indeed, Hook is beaten, shot at, blown up, stabbed, throttled, and shot at again. All within 24 hours.
Some give him shelter, either out of pity or for an ulterior motive, or a combination of both. Hook grabs a young hooligan to ask for directions and the boy turns out to be the nephew of a Loyalist leader. Excited to befriend an actual British soldier, he offers to guide Hook back to his lines, but even he doesn’t know the way out of the labyrinth. Another household in the heart of IRA territory takes him in, but they are also caught in the network of hate and opportunism. When it comes to vengeance and murderous intrigue, the Belfast in “ ’71” is a small world.
Most touching of all is a woman who tries to shame a mob as they’re beating captured British soldiers. She appears briefly, and her appeal to decency has little effect, but the gesture shines in the darkness, a reminder of the humanity that somehow survives and prevails.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.