10 years in the making


According to a character in 71 the British army in Northern Ireland was about ‘Posh men telling thick men to kill poor men’ (but in this version the offensive words have been substituted). Perhaps, like the terror of Private Hook, a teenage soldier posted to a battlefield he knows nothing about, it’s a universal truth of all wars.
Hook is an inexperienced squaddie from Derbyshire who finds himself left behind by his comrades during a riot in West Belfast in 1971. Disoriented, traumatised, injured and lost he must somehow make his way back to his barracks, navigating the warren of dark Belfast backstreets and, as we learn, the complex deceptions and betrayals of its politics. Nothing is what it seems, there are splits and rivalries on both sides and Hook is caught in the middle.
Northern Ireland serves as a ready-made backdrop for a film about tense, explosive conflict. Made on a relatively low budget, director Yann Demange recreates Belfast from locations in Blackburn, Liverpool and Sheffield, and the cinematography evokes the nightmarish scenes of burning cars, barricades and street battles of news reports of the times. But the roots of the Troubles, or even the underlying moral issues raised aren’t the concern of this film. Where the film succeeds is as a fast-paced thriller in which the build-up of panic is palpable and the shocking events such as the explosion and its aftermath are terrifyingly tense (so much so that a new use was found for the seat cushions provided by Arthouse management). There are moments of almost unbearable tension and horror.
Jack O’Connell is excellent as Private Hook, and manages to make more of a character that doesn’t seem to have enough depth or backstory. Hook loses his innocence, but its not clear what lessons he’s learnt from his ordeal. The murderous agents from black-ops are led by two actors, Sean Harris and Paul Anderson, who are masters of portraying volatile unpredictability (the latter currently terrifying on TV in Peaky Blinders).
Did it convince Edward Toman, award-winning Irish novelist and a regular at Arthouse? “The idea that everyone has an interest in seeing that the lad doesn’t make it to safety may be interesting to those of us who experienced the conflict in Ulster and knew it was never as clear-cut as the British press made it out to be. But the ideological tensions between Stickies and Provies and the dirty war conducted by the British undercover forces are not explored in any detail or to any real effect.”
More than anything else it’s a powerful thriller, and one with some strong language and strong violence.