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For the last three decades of the 20th century, Northern Ireland was mired in a toxic internecine conflict that came to be known as “the Troubles.” Although bombings, assassinations, street battles and clashes with security forces claimed the lives of more than 3,600 people, it was an era defined as much by fear as overt violence.

There’s a sense of dread percolating through “’71,” a tense, confident thriller by first-time feature director Yann Demange. Set in Belfast in 1971, the film takes place just as the Troubles were reaching their destructive peak: nearly 500 people would lose their lives the following year, over half of them civilians, and quite a few of them at the hands of British soldiers sent to quell the unrest.

This is the milieu that greets Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), a fresh-faced army private from Derby, England, who’s surprised to learn that his squad aren’t being sent off for a cushy tour of Germany. “I take it you all know where Belfast is?” says their commanding officer, only half jokingly, as he gives them their marching orders: “You are not leaving this country.”

'71 (Berufasto 71)
Rating
Run Time 99 minutes
Language English
Opens Aug. 1

When they pitch up in Northern Ireland, though, these soldiers might as well be foreign interlopers. A briefing session spells out the basic scenario for the benefit of the new arrivals and, by extension, the viewer: Belfast is divided between Protestant loyalists and Catholic republicans, who after years of living uncomfortably side by side are now going at each other’s throats. But as Gary soon discovers, the reality on the ground is less clearly defined.

During a routine house search, the squad clashes with a crowd of stone-throwing locals — captured in frantic handheld camerawork that leaves the viewer nearly as bewildered as the troops themselves — and one of their rifles gets stolen. When Gary and another private dash off in pursuit of the weapon, they end up coming under attack, in the end Gary is the only soldier left standing. There’s just one problem: His unit has retreated without him.

As he tries to navigate an unfamiliar, hostile city and find his way back to base, his plight becomes a window into the messy, murky nature of the Troubles. It’s a world where a teenager may be helping his sister with her homework one minute and retrieving a stash of hidden guns the next, and where you’re as likely to be killed by your own side as by your supposed enemies.

Though he manages to evade a pair of IRA gunmen, Gary soon finds that he has foes closer to home, in the form of a trio of counterinsurgency operatives commanded by the sinister Capt. Sandy Browning (Sean Harris). Meanwhile, veteran IRA operative Boyle (David Wilmot) is struggling to rein in a more violent splinter faction led by the younger Quinn (Killian Scott), who advocates direct confrontation with the British military.

The shifting, conflicting loyalties between terrorists, British undercover agents and civilians make for gripping drama, but so does the more elemental story of Gary’s fight for survival.

Much of the film’s action takes place at night, in desolate streets humming with the threat of violence, recalling the likes of John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” and Walter Hill’s “The Warriors”. (Present-day Belfast bears so little resemblance to how the city looked in ’71 that the film had to be shot in the northern English cities of Blackburn, Liverpool and Sheffield instead.)

In an extraordinary moment toward the end of the film, Gary and one of his assailants are finally able to recognize each other as people rather than pawns, and a moment of brutal violence gives way to genuine tenderness. But all too often, it’s clear that human life is a cheap commodity here.

“You’re just a piece of meat to them,” cautions a former army doctor, as he patches Gary up. By the time “’71” reaches its downbeat conclusion, that message rings resoundingly true.

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