The Dirty War – Dan McGinn takes a look at Yann Demange’s thriller ’71’



On the night of Friday, February 6 1971, 21 year-old IRA member James Saunders was shot by the British Army during rioting in the Oldpark area of north Belfast.

Not too far away, 28 year-old father of two Bernard Watt was gunned down by soldiers in the Ardyone area during disturbances after a military personnel carrier was hit by nail bombs and petrol bombs.

Also that night in the New Lodge, the first serving British soldier to die in the Troubles, Gunner Robert Curtis was killed in a fierce gun battle with the IRA during which four colleagues were seriously wounded.

One of those soldiers, Bombadier John Lawrie, aged 22, died a week later in hospital from his wounds.

Four lives were lost in one night’s violence and over the course of the year, 180 people died – 94 of them civilians and 60 of them members of the security forces.

Such was life in Northern Ireland in 1971.

1971 was the year when internment without trial was introduced in Northern Ireland by the British Government.

It was also the year of the Ballymurphy shootings, the bombings of the Four Step Inn, Murtagh’s, McGurk’s Bar and the Balmoral Furniture Store.

An orgy of bloodshed ripped communities apart and it entrenched divisions in these islands for generations.

It was also the year when the Home Secretary Reginald Maudling infamously said he would settle for an “acceptable level of violence”.

And when the ceasefires were declared 23 years later after 3,600 people lost their lives, Maudling’s comments seemed all the more inappropriate and bizarre.

Little did we realise, however, in 1994 just how difficult it would be to heal the wounds of the previous 25 years.

It should, of course, go without saying just how far we have come in Northern Ireland over the last 20 years since the IRA, UDA and UVF ceasefires.

But every now and again, it is worth reminding ourselves just how terrifying, tragic and crazy the whole situation was between 1969 and 1994.

As our politicians clash over the airwaves over welfare reform and the perilous state of Stormont’s finances, it is easy to succumb to despair but, given where we have come from, it is progress.

And while we reflect on that progress, in another piece of uncanny timing, 20 years on from the ceasefires, Yann Demange’s thriller ’71’ has arrived on our cinema screens.

Troubles movies are a notoriously difficult sell to mainstream movie audiences – especially outside Northern Ireland.

However Demange’s film is a rare addition to the genre in that it takes a squaddie’s eye view of one of the worst years of the conflict.

But while it touches on the complexity and tragedy of the early Troubles, ’71 uses the conflict mostly as a canvass to craft a taut thriller.

Up and coming English actor Jack O’Connell plays Gary Hook, a soldier with a younger brother in a care home who, after undergoing basic training, is posted to Belfast under the command of Sebastian Reid’s naive, posh Lieutenant Armitage.

In its first operation, the platoon is ordered to accompany RUC officers on a raid on the house of a suspected IRA member off the Falls Road.

But they are ordered by Armitage to forego their riot gear and wear their uniforms and berets so as not to inflame the situation.

En route to the house, the soldiers are pelted by children with urine and excrement but they are faced with a much more dangerous situation as residents gather to protest on the street where the raid takes place.

Tensions reach boiling point and inevitably, rioting breaks out and the rifle of a member of the platoon is stolen.

Hook and Jack Lowden’s fellow squaddie Thommo pursue on foot a boy who has grabbed the rifle.

As they wrestle it back, they are surrounded by an angry mob, are kicked and beaten.

A woman intervenes and pleads for sanity but, in a shocking sequence, Thommo is shot through the head by Martin McCann’s Provisional IRA member Paul Haggerty.

Events take a further turn for the worse, when the platoon flees the scene and accidentally leaves Hook behind.

Chased through a warren of alleyways by Haggerty, the bruised and battered Hook manages to find a hiding place.

But can he find his way back to barracks in a city he has next to no knowledge of? And can he trust anyone to help a wounded soldier?

Written by acclaimed Scottish playwright Gregory Burke, whose play ‘Black Watch’ for the National Theatre of Scotland earned rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, ’71’ is a cleverly constructed and expertly paced thriller that captures the insanity of the Troubles.

Demange, an accomplished Anglo French director of the hard hitting Channel 4 crime drama Top Boy, studiously tries to avoid taking sides.

British Army intelligence, republicans and loyalists all engage in a deadly and corrupt game of double cross and triple cross and any life is expendable.

O’Connell is compelling as Hook, a fish very much out of water, swimming desperately for survival in the madness of 1971 west Belfast.

In many ways, his predicament is not all that different to James Mason’s wounded IRA gunman Johnny McQueen in Carol Reed’s 1947 Belfast film noir ‘Odd Man Out’. He’s just on the other side.

But coming hot on the heels of his star turn in the prison drama ‘Starred Up’, it is clear O’Connell is a considerable acting talent who could go on to great things if he continues to choose his roles wisely.

Demange is also blessed with top notch performances from a strong cast.

Sean Harris and Paul Anderson from ‘Peaky Blinders’ are suitably sinister as military intelligence officers operating in the shadows.

Killian Scott from ‘Love Hate’ and Martin McCann are equally chilling as fanatical young republicans and there is a strong performance from Barry Keoghan as an impressionable youth.

David Wilmot posts another impressive supporting role as Boyle, an older republican who has contempt and a fear of the younger, more fanatical generation.

The ever-reliable Richard Dormer delivers yet again as a resident of Divis Flats who along with Charlie Murphy’s Brigid intervenes and treats Hook.

Arguably the scene stealing performance though is Corey McKinley’s tough loyalist street kid who offers to escort Hook back to safety. On one level it is endearing but on another the casual sectarianism of his comments to the soldier is deeply disturbing.

All of these strong performances are made possible by the authenticity and quality of Burke’s script.

But Demange also owes a lot to David Holmes’ atmospheric score and Scott Kevan’s stunning cinematography which conjures up a damp, dark Belfast bathed in amber.

Given that Troubles movies are notoriously a hard sell at the box office outside of Northern Ireland, it would be a shame if ’71 struggles to find a multiplex audience in Britain, the Republic of Ireland and elsewhere.

And while some viewers in Northern Ireland may take issue with how their sides are represented onscreen, on a pure filmmaking level Demange’s film is a considerable achievement.

If you strip aside the setting and the historical context, you have to acknowledge it is an accomplished, gritty realist thriller that never resorts to cheap gung ho heroics. It could be pitched as ‘Odd Man Out’ meets ‘Full Metal Jacket’ meets the Bruce Willis thriller ’16 Blocks’ but with much more pathos and a sense of impending doom.

But its greatest value is the way in which it reminds us all of the madness that engulfed Northern Ireland during the Troubles and the absolute stupidity of Reginald Maudling’s comments.

Even with the Stormont stand-off over welfare reform, Demange’s ’71 rams home to us that the “jaw, jaw” we have now is certainly better than “war, war”.

(’71 opened in the Movie House in Northern Ireland and other UK and Irish cinemas in October).

One thought on “The Dirty War – Dan McGinn takes a look at Yann Demange’s thriller ’71’

  1. I’d like to see Eamonn Mallie take on Dan McGinn on this one. I missed out on ’71 in fact and in film and fiction so far. So a bit of blood and guts from Mallie and McGinn might cheer me up.

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