I honestly didn’t know what to expect from ’71. Confusingly, the Google summary told me it was about “Sandra, a young Belgian mother, discovers that her workmates have opted for a significant pay bonus, in exchange for her dismissal.” So far, so huh?
One of the director’s, Yann Demange’s, best known previous credits was ITV’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl. I knew Jack O’Connell, who plays the lead, best as Brett from Eden Lake (HOW NOW BROWN COW anyone?) and also..err..from Skins.
The Guardian Film Show called it an audacious film, lacking a political dimension, forgoing the “oh my god, this is so tragic” element. I started to feel a little bit uncomfortable – at a certain point does this move from being entertainment to being exploitation?
So I went in prepared to hate it, to cringe at it, to pick the film apart. I more or less wanted to feel this way. The Troubles meta-narrative in film has become something akin to a monolith. And inevitably this is the case – where there is no political forum or something akin to a truth and reconciliation commission, inevitably the issues and legacy from the conflict have to play out somewhere. Arguably, they are being played out culturally and in the media. This is not necessarily a negative thing, films need dramatic conflict, there have been successful films around the world which have dealt with a legacy of political and violent conflict in interesting and varied ways – The Secrets in their Eyes from Argentina, Pan’s Labyrinth from Spain, Lives Of Others from Germany etc.
While you would certainly not want to see anyone deny that the conflict here took place and effectively put a whitewash over it, there is a real danger that it is becoming our “brand”. ’71 wasn’t made locally, but we have talented and skilled production crews and studio facilities more often than not being put to use rehashing the Troubles or working on a huge big escapist fantasy drama like City of Embers or Game of Thrones.
Could they be telling other local stories? I would like to think so. There is a real danger that the female voice is being completely neglected in this balaclava drama narrative. The Troubles narrative is also stifling for young film makers who were born around the time the Ceasefire came into effect and who have no direct memories of the army on the street, but who are maybe starting to feel that is the only story to be told here. And there is an argument that cultural rehearsal comes ahead of political change, so if our culture is rehashing the old instead of rehearsing something new, maybe we are at risk of being locked into this stalemate indefinitely.
But…and this is a big but…’71 is actually, dare I say it, good. It is a circumspect and nuanced piece of work that works both as a kind of chase thriller movie and a political piece. I disagree utterly with Peter Bradshaw and Catherine Shoard at the Guardian that ’71 is ‘refreshingly’ politics free. The political context may not be explicit and the film does not rely on black screens filled with explanatory text or reels of old news footage to explain to the audience what is going on and why. But the politics is there, alright.
There’s collusion rife on both sides of the fence, there’s the fall out from the 1969 / 1970 republican split being played out on screen, and there’s the class politics at play in the army, illustrated nicely in the character of Lt. Armitage, who seems to see his role as something like a peacekeeping force, winning hearts and minds, and protecting people, berets on heads instead of helmets.
The class issue is hammered home by the redoubtable Richard Dormer, who lectures poor old Gary Hook that the army is where “posh c##ts tell thick c##ts to kill poor c##ts”, an organisation that treats soldiers as nothing more than meat, as he sews up Hook’s gaping flesh, a meat-like analogy that leaves nothing to the imagination.There is no God in the film – no priests, no moral authority, beyond the humanist slant that redemption, while distant, may be possible, at least on an individual level. Within the dark amorality of the conflict there is kindness, there is love, there is concern, there is compassion.
And, to me at least, the film seemed rife with comparisons between what happened here over the last four decades and what is happening in the Middle East. Send in the troops without the faintest concept of the context they are being parachuted into and the political intricacies of the situation and what happens? Soldiers fighting civilians and a cycle of suffering, violence, hatred and needless deaths that is nearly impossible to break, a point underlined towards the end of the film in the interaction between James Quinn and the MRF.
Sure there are tropes and stereotypes – kids throwing balloons filled with piss at soldiers, a straight talking Scottish soldier who has no time for his younger, more idealistic superior officer, a straggly haired republican, an indiscriminately violent RUC man. Overall, though, the film is tightly poised, visually sophisticated and almost unanimously well acted (special credit to the wonderful and engaging Corey McKinley).
In fact, my only problem with it, really, was, as with many of these projects, was the role of women. The female voice has been deliberately and not very subtly eroded and elided from the conflict narrative with women left on screen and in fiction as the ignored, the grieving, the downtrodden. The first woman we see on screen in a screaming wife whose husband is being given a kicking outside. She has two small children clinging to her skirts, she is crying and she is called a ‘Fenian bitch’. The next is a pretty girl in a sheepskin coat spitting in a soldier’s face. The next is a middle aged lady telling the boys off for beating up the soldiers who have been separated from their unit. She is promptly ignored and, well, the consequences for Thommo aren’t too pretty. We have other women flinging themselves over prams, clutching wounded children and poor Brigid who isn’t sure whether she should be obeying her Daddy or her paramilitary boyfriend. The female characters are variously credited on IMDB as: “Mother in Raided House”, “Sean’s Mum”, “Republican barmaid”, “Sean’s Little Sister” and “Bin Lid Lady”.
’71 is a very good film. And it is far from being the only film that has such an omission at its centre. But this is not a small point. Women existed in Belfast between 1969 and 2014 but you would hardly know it from the big screen, the small screen or even the history books. They engaged in politics, whether punching the Home Secretary in the face or starting their own political parties or, you know, quietly getting elected president of Ireland. They were proactive in peacemaking – two local women won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for crying out loud. They were active combatants in the conflict. They taught. They wrote. They dissented. They made music. They thought. So…where are they?