“Posh cnts telling thick cnts to kill poor c*nts. That’s the army for you. It’s all a lie.”
Conflict. It is interesting taking the time to consider the ways in which we first come to learn about and experience it.
For me, personally, there were of course the first instances of sibling rivalry with my older brother, and then amongst other things, later times where I was to experience the general schoolyard bullying most of us have had to endure at one time or another.
Films and television series would also shed light on the matter with many depicting some form of power struggle. Science fiction and fantasy such as Star Wars, Krull and Willow were to make up most of the viewing in my sheltered childhood, yet amongst these were also television shows like the highly engaging M.A.S.H, which in 1980s New Zealand, screened right after cartoons and through comedy provided a PG rated, accessible and highly relatable perspective of war.
In my early teens when I became further aware of events unfolding in the world around me, I was to have my first experience of seeing through media, a modern conflict take shape in the form of the Gulf War. Living in Canada at the time, I remember receiving a bottle of army surplus Operation Desert Storm SPF 15, which had been donated to The Salvation Army Centre where my parents worked—and which, in it’s own small way I felt connected me to and somehow cemented for me—the realness of the conflict.
And yet, in all of this, one of the most recurring thoughts I have had amidst these reflections is the notion in which—without full consideration—I have so easily come to see modern conflict post-World War Two, as being something far away and foreign; a series of violent events occurring in developing countries or those more closely identified as being part of the eastern world. I think this cursory perception alone asserts that I have been privileged growing up in a country and community where in recent times there has been reasonably swift and diplomatic resolution to disputes, and if not, at least a grudging peace maintained.
When it comes to thinking about the Northern Ireland Conflict I feel a sense of dissonance, and find myself mildly perplexed when it comes to realising that a violent civil conflict—which in some cases took on the form of terrorism—began in the United Kingdom as recently as the late 1960s, and was to continue on for 30 years.
‘71 is set in the very early years of ‘The Troubles’ —a name by which The Northern Ireland Conflict is also known and came about as a result of a combination of factors stretching back many years—but in short, emerged as a struggle between Unionists/Loyalists of whom the vast majority were Protestant wanting Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Nationalists/Republicans—almost entirely made up of Catholics—wishing to unite with the Republic of Ireland.
Notably the conflict was to do with territory and not religion. Though it was the social and political factors affecting these two denominations that were to primarily dictate to which side each was to align their loyalties.
Private Gary Hook, a Soldier in a British Army regiment, provides the lens through which we view the story of ‘71; through his journey we see a cross section of people, situations and circumstances that give us an idea of what conditions may have been like in Belfast at the time. A true story that was an initial influence for ‘71, according to writer Gregory Burke, involved two young soldiers who were caught in a riot and shot by the Ireland Republic Army. In ‘71 one is shot, and the other gets away.
Jack O’Connell does well giving life and depth to his character, but he also leaves plenty of room for the myriad characters we come to see in the film. For me, two standout performances come from younger members of the cast.
Barry Keoghan as Sean Bannon, plays a young man who has been drawn into and caught up with a group of extremists who represent the next generation of Nationalists. Despite his dedicated involvement, his place as the fledgling of the group is evident with his youth and naivety lying at the root of his lack of competence, and at times, struggle to be fully committed to the cause. Throughout his performance he appears unemotive and his true thoughts—save for a few instances—remain a mystery.
In a scene where Sean returns home for dinner with his mother and little sister, we manage to catch a glimpse of the spirit and life that lies hiding behind his deadpan exterior, and this foreshadows some of the key decisions he chooses to make later in the story. Overall, he represents a victim of circumstance and also to that of his own youthful innocence. He is caught up in a struggle that is too big for him to fully understand.
In contrast, Corey McKinley, as a young loyalist boy portrays a feisty, brash and determined adolescent whose performance not only provides some very humorous moments, but whose character is representative of many youth who were no doubt forced to grow up very quickly amid the harsh and unpredictable conditions. He is unafraid and familiar with his surroundings, aware of what is going on around him. Having some friends in high places, he does not hesitate to take anyone who gives him grief, down a peg or two.
The aspect of ‘71 I most enjoyed was its ability to play on an intricate web of loyalty and betrayal. As with any conflict or struggle, there is rarely ever black and white, rather, a palette of many shades of grey. There is no right or wrong way to seek resolution, retribution or to advance your own cause, and it often becomes a case of what works and what is the best choice at the time.
In ‘71 there are characters on either side to empathise with, root for, admire, loathe and feel anger towards. I would give ‘71 a 7 out of 10 and recommend Hunger and The Baader Meinhof Complex as addition viewing.
The aspect of ‘71 I most enjoyed was its ability to play on an intricate web of loyalty and betrayal. As with any conflict or struggle, there is rarely ever black and white, rather, a palette of many shades of grey.