’ 71 , war thriller, rated R, Regal DeVargas, 2.5 chiles
War movies frequently take place in foreign territory, with stories that center on soldiers adrift in a strange land, far from home. Themes of isolation and loneliness are never far from the fore, which is what makes the “band of brothers” factor so compelling. In ’71 (the film’s title refers to the year 1971), we open with a British company training on home soil — soon, in theory, to be sent to Germany. Instead, it’s routed to Belfast to assist in policing the violence in Northern Ireland during what was known as the Troubles, a period lasting from 1968 to 1998.
Its purpose there seems rather vague, to both the company’s soldiers — they’re to look imposing without actually enforcing martial law — and 2015 audiences in America. Perhaps because of their ambiguous role, the young soldiers don’t quite know how to react when a Catholic mob riots. The Irish Catholics look like the English and live in places not unlike those the English live in. The foreign element of the war film is gone. How do you participate in a conflict in your own backyard, against your neighbors? Do you raise your guns against children throwing rocks?
Such issues of conscience soon become moot for Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), a soldier who leaves his company to chase a boy who has stolen a machine gun and soon finds himself trapped in hostile territory. The action follows Gary, but it also shows different factions involved in the conflict, observing them all with an objective eye. These treatments offer a fascinating study, but the film doesn’t let us get to know any of its characters and become emotionally attached to them. Nevertheless, everything in ’71 looks wonderful: First-time director Yann Demange and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe paint the screen with a fine sense of chiaroscuro, using darkness and silhouettes to evoke the wartime noir in films like 1969’s Army of Shadows and an effective cinéma vérité approach to conveying the chaos.
’71 closely recalls director Steve McQueen’s 2008 film, Hunger , and not just because both films center on the decades-ago struggles of the people of Northern Ireland. That film also seems like a directorial calling card, after its release allowing McQueen to show audiences and future investors that he’s a gifted filmmaker with a unique talent for staging scenes. McQueen went on to acclaim and awards just a few years later with 12 Years a Slave . Judging by his own achievements here, it’s easy to imagine Demange having a similar career path. For now, this film is not a great movie so much as a great collection of tools and techniques the director might someday use to assemble a masterpiece.
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