Armed soldiers on the streets, residents going to bloody war with their neighbours, bombs exploding in pubs – unthinkable in a UK city in 2014.
But tense thriller ‘71, starring Derby’s Jack O’Connell, reminds us that reality in areas of Belfast was every bit as grim as that not so long ago.
The British Armed Forces only pulled out of Northern Ireland in 1997, after 38 years.
Military deployment began in 1969, two years before the setting of this action film directed by Yann Demange, the man who gave us Top Boy.
Gritty urban scenes are obviously a Demange forte, and one of the most horrifying realisations from ‘71 is that the war took place on the doorsteps – quite literally – of normal families, both Catholic and Protestant.
The star of the film, a young solider from Derbyshire, doesn’t even know which religion he belongs to.
There’s a real sense from the very start that although ‘Brits’ like Gary Hook were objects of hate when stepping into Nationalist areas, they didn’t fully grasp why they were there.
Hook and his unit are sent into a powderkeg scenario with orders to help the RU, then the police force in Northern Ireland, to search a house for guns.
With no helmets or shields to protect themselves due to a wet behind the ears officer’s naïvety, they’re soon embroiled in a full scale riot.
When a youngster steals a rifle from a fallen soldier, Hook is sent to retreive it and then left behind as the army beat a hasty retreat.
What follows is utter disorientation and terror.
O’Connell doesn’t play the hardman, he plays the rabbit in headlights, hunted by young IRA men hellbent on claiming a British scalp. And he plays it brilliantly.
It’s edge of the seat stuff, even when he appears to stumble into friendly turf.
The phrase ‘confused situation’ is used more than once in the film, pointing to the blurred lines between friends and foes.
There are dark forces at work behind the front lines, some trying to keep a lid on a conflict that would go on to claim the lives of over 3,600 people, and some of them just trying to hurt the other side.
The ingrained hatred, passed on from generation to generation, is spat out for all to see in the words of a young child who befriends Hook.
And as Hook loses himself in the rows of terraced houses, we’re just as disorientated as he – at times unsure if he’s on safe ground or behind enemy lines.
The streets all look the same, the people all look the same, their lives are barely any different from those a brick’s throw away, and yet the wrong word spoken at the wrong time could end the soldier’s life.
Evil acts are committed on all sides, as the film points the finger at everyone, rather than taking sides.
The film’s score heightens the tension until the fever pitch conclusion, a complex murderous plot played out in surroundings portrayed by Sheffield’s Park Hill flats and other English cities.
‘71 is every bit as gritty and unflinching as you’d expect from a Warp Films project.
O’Connell is vulnerable and believable as a young man trying to find his way out of the worst nightmare.
Sean Harris was born to play a scary man with facial hair, and his Captain Sandy Browning is a barely under control psychopath.
It will come as a relief to viewers from ‘our wee country’ that the accents are consistent and authentic, for the most part.
But as enjoyable as this film is, it’s uncomfortable viewing for those who remember the way things were in the not so distant past.
You will not leave the cinema any wiser as to why any of those people died.
By Graham Smyth