Es­cape from west Belfast

This vis­ceral pur­suit yarn makes North­ern Ire­land dur­ing the Trou­bles look like a dis­tant hos­tile planet, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

‘71 ★★★★ Di­rected by Yann De­mange. Star­ring Jack O’Con­nell, Seán Har­ris, Sam Reid, Charlie Murphy, Paul An­der­son, Kil­lian Scott, David Wil­mot, Martin McCann. 15A cert, gen re­lease, 99 min

There ex­ists a pho­to­graph of your re­viewer – all pur­ple flares and pud­ding-bowl hair – stand­ing mer­rily be­neath a huge wooden “71” po­si­tioned near the Botanic Gar­dens in south Belfast. For rea­sons that should be ap­par­ent, the op­ti­mistic Ul­ster 71 Expo, con­ceived to cel­e­brate 50 years of the North­ern Ir­ish statelet, failed mis­er­ably to de­fine the era.

There is cer­tainly no men­tion of it in Yann De­mange’s break­neck thriller set two miles west of the gi­ant dig­its. This is a height­ened ver­sion of the blood­ied-parka Belfast we soaked up through­out decades of mis­er­able news re­ports.

Film-mak­ers have rarely dared to use the Trou­bles as a back­drop to any sort of main­stream en­ter­tain­ment. You can­not, after all, move through those wa­ters with­out pick­ing up in­con­ve­nient po­lit­i­cal residue in ev­ery ex­posed crevice. De­mange’s film en­gages with more than a few con­tro­ver­sies. There are ref­er­ences to col­lu­sion be­tween loy­al­ist paramil­i­taries and the se­cu­rity forces. Else­where, we get an un­com­fort­able re­minder of the Jean McConville mur­der. But, for the most part, ‘71 plays like a raw pur­suit thriller. There’s some­thing of Cor­nel Wilde’s The Naked Prey or Mel Gib­son’s Apoca­lypto about it (even if com­par­isons be­tween 1970s west Belfast and bru­tal tribal re­gions seem a lit­tle over­stretched).

The movie could be set in a dozen war­zones, but, hav­ing set­tled on Belfast, the film-mak­ers revel in the ar­ti­fi­cial fi­bres, shaggy hair, and nico­tine-yel­low ceil­ings of a par­tic­u­lar place at a par­tic­u­lar time. The fact that ‘71 was shot largely in York­shire makes the achieve­ment all the more re­mark­able.

The un­stop­pable Jack O’Con­nell – soon to ap­pear in An­gelina Jolie’s Un­bro­ken – stars as Gary, a sol­dier from Der­byshire dis­patched to Belfast as the sit­u­a­tion is slip­ping into near-an­ar­chy. The com­mand­ing of­fi­cer’s open­ing brief­ing is among the film’s weaker mo­ments. Con­structed for an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence, Gre­gory Burke’s script needed to ex­plain the ba­sic dy­nam­ics of the con­flict, but the di­a­logue is pa­tro­n­is­ingly sim­plis­tic and the ref­er­ence to the Protes­tant and Catholic “com­mu­ni­ties” feels a wee bit anachro­nis­tic. (That eu­phemistic side­step did not be­come manda­tory for another decade.)

At any rate, Gary and his com­rades soon find them­selves caught up in a chaotic street bat­tle. He be­comes sep­a­rated from his squad and, as night falls, must face up to the chal­lenge of mak­ing his way home through oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory. West Belfast be­ing not quite so huge as the forests tra­versed in Apoca­lypto, Burke and De­mange have to in­vent a few com­pli­ca­tions to im­pede his progress. He has a drink in a sin­is­ter loy­al­ist pub. Com­pro­mised repub­li­cans seek his blood. Richard Dormer turns up as an or­di­nary man striv­ing to do the de­cent thing.

Com­par­isons have been made with Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, but ‘71 has none of that film’s som­bre noir po­etry. Shot in drab pea-soup green and end­less cheap-leatherette brown, the film is suf­fo­cated by the tribal pol­i­tics and zero-sum philoso­phies of those wretched times.

Yet ‘71 is never less than ex­hil­a­rat­ing. De­mange, a French­man, who came to us through tele­vi­sion, keeps his cam­era mo­bile with­out quite suc­cumb­ing to the full, at­ten­tion deficit restor­ing shuf­fle. O’Con­nell of­fers a per­fect im­per­son­ation of a man who, though pass­ing among work­ing-class streets very like his own, feels him­self stranded on a hos­tile planet.

It is, ul­ti­mately, re­as­sur­ing to note that the worst years of the North­ern Ir­ish dis­tur­bances now seem suf­fi­ciently dis­tant to al­low their in­cor­po­ra­tion into a po­lit­i­cally neu­tral en­ter­tain­ment. Amer­i­can cin­ema be­gan treat­ing the Viet­nam con­flict in this fash­ion within a few years of the fall of Saigon. We’ve got longer mem­o­ries in this part of the world. Heck, just look at the first sen­tence of this re­view.

A vis­ceral jolt to be savoured.

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