’71

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Northern Ireland’s long, bloody conflict, quaintly nicknamed The Troubles, was between people (mostly Protestant) who wanted to remain part of the U.K. and people (mostly Catholic) who wanted an independent, united Ireland. Americans may have only a vague awareness of the issues involved — apart from a few movies and a U2 song, it hasn’t been prominent in our culture — but in watching “’71,” it’s easy to see parallels to Afghanistan, Iraq, Selma, and Ferguson.

“’71” (as in 1971) is a tense, nerve-racking drama set primarily over the course of one night in Belfast. Rather than tackle the complicated and volatile emotions that divided the people, it tells a self-contained, fictional story about a single soldier who finds himself behind enemy lines — something anyone can understand, and that doesn’t require any foreknowledge of Irish politics circa 1970.

It stars up-and-comer Jack O’Connell (“Unbroken”) as Gary Hook, a British soldier whose unit is sent to Belfast to keep the peace during a house-to-house check for weapons in a part of the city known to be an Irish Republican Army stronghold. Gary’s commanding officer says to wear berets, not helmets: they want the people to know they’re here as peacekeepers, not as combatants. Things inevitably go wrong and there is a riot, during which Gary is separated from his unit and left fending for himself in a distinctly anti-British neighborhood. His mission now is simple: get to safety before the IRA catches up with him.

Directed by Yann Demange (an impressive first feature) and scripted by playwright Gregory Burke, the film spends most of its time with Gary, a brave but inexperienced soldier whose resilience is put to the test as one help after another slips from his grasp. But the story also expands to include IRA forces, British undercover operatives, and other interested parties. With traitors on both sides, and dubious characters popping up around every corner, the stage is set for a multi-faceted war drama, which Demange handily delivers (a few moments of distracting shaky-cam usage notwithstanding).

At just 24 years old, O’Connell has carved a niche for himself as an intense actor adept at playing brutally physical roles. Between this, “Unbroken,” and “Starred Up” (an under-seen prison drama from 2014), he’s due for a light romantic comedy, or at least something where he doesn’t get beaten up all the time. He carries “’71” with lean confidence, inviting us to hold our breath along with him while he scrambles for safety.

B+ (1 hr., 39 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, some very strong violence.)

Originally published at GeekNation.