Saturday, 11 October 2014


In 1974, as a student in the UK, I took a train from Edinburgh to London, sharing a compartment with a young squaddie back from duty in Northern Ireland. A ginger-haired Geordie with bad teeth and long bright red sideboards out of kilter with his close-cropped hair, I personally witnessed him drink 19 bottles of Newkie Brown (and somehow miraculously not pass out) whilst he railed on about life in the Army. I was a young product of US Southern life of roughly the same age, and I was amazed, appalled, and frightened, to be frank, as he would tilt over towards me and confide in beery breath: "British army, Best in the world, mate". I would nod and resume nursing the beers he proffered me as his drinking taillights disappeared into the distance.

I saw the movie '71 last night about a young squaddie in Belfast in 1971, and I was taken back to that train compartment, and I realised that then, and perhaps now, I just did not have a feckin' clue.

'71 is an astounding first film from Yann Demange about the kaleidoscopic moral inferno which was Northern Ireland at that time. It is a film where the bad guys are indistinguishable from the good guys, where fear, hatred, intimidation, treachery, manipulation, strength, frailty, stupidity and even mercy all exist side by side in a hellish maelstrom. The hero is a young squaddie from Derbyshire played brilliantly by Jack O'Connell (watch him and learn) who is caught behind enemy lines (ie. on the wrong side of the street in Catholic Belfast) when a house search goes horrible wrong, a riot ensues, and he is separated from his squad with a fellow squaddie who gets his face blown off. O'Connell is the type of actor who says little but says everything with a glance, a dip of the head. His performance is mesmerising, and halfway through the movie you find you have been drawn into his terror, your stomach knotted with fear, as somehow he has to survive the night and escape in an utterly alien landscape with, as they say "the enemy within."

There are almost too many fine performances to pick out. Kudos to Demange for extracted every last ounce from everybody, and making everyone very very believable. There is an astounding cameo from a young Loyalist kid old way beyond his years, the nephew of a para-military commander who intimidates everyone twice his size as he roams the night plotting against the Finian basterds. There are so many discordant notes in this symphony: the rat faced ruthless intelligence officer, the posh lieutenant in way over his head, the West Indian staff sergeant trying to mold young scared soldiers who can't see who they are fighting or why, the dead eyed young IRA footsoldier press-ganged by the Provos into becoming a gunman, the ex-Army doctor and his daughter who save O'Connell's life. It is a world where black and white have long disappeared into the grey of moral confusion from which no-one emerges unscathed. 

And this is all woven by the gifted conductor Demange into a masterwork which captures the sharp ambiguity, if that is possible, of those times. As I replayed the movie in my mind in the middle of the night (always a sign of a very good film) it brought back those memories of a naive schoolboy next to a drunk boy who had already become a man whether he wanted to or not. I really didn't have a feckin' clue.