*****Contains plot spoilers*****
This recent film has just received a TV showing, and I was pleased to be able to see it, without having to go to a cinema in Norwich. As the title suggests, it is set in 1971, in the city of Belfast, at the beginning of the period known as ‘The Troubles.’ This conflict between the Protestant and Catholic communities of that city (and other places in the six counties) has been well documented in many films and TV series. This film does not attempt to offer any background to the history of the different causes, or to pass judgement on either side. Instead, it focuses on one soldier in a small army unit, sent from England to assist the local police to deal with the violence that is beginning to become widespread.
Jack O’Connell stars as Gary Hook. He has recently joined the army, moving on from life in a Derbyshire care home, where he has to leave his young brother still residing. When he has completed his basic training, his platoon are informed that they are being sent to Belfast, and they are reminded that it is still part of Great Britain. He spends his last day at home with his young brother, taking him to play football, and to reassure him that all will turn out OK.
When they arrive at their barracks in the city, they are given basic accommodation in a hall, and introduced to their platoon leader, the inexperienced young Lieutenant Armitage. (Sam Reid) Hook spots some plain-clothes soldiers, and is told that they are from Army Intelligence, a special undercover unit, led by Captain Sandy Browning. (Sean Harris) When they have to go out on their first patrol, Armitage refuses to allow them to wear protective clothing and riot helmets, as he is convinced that they must present a less aggressive face to the local people. The mission is to assist the local police (RUC) in the search of a house where a Catholic family are thought to be hiding guns. On the way, they are delayed and diverted by roads blocked with burning vehicles, and have to be shown to the location by the RUC. The search is handled with violence from the outset. Screaming women and children are shouted at and pushed around, and the man of the house beaten badly by the police officers. At the time, most of the serving police officers were Protestants, and their treatment of Catholic suspects is something of a matter of record, so not unrealistically portrayed here.
During the search, an angry crowd gathers, and begins to throw things at the soldiers in the street, and confront them violently. As the situation deteriorates, the RUC leave with their arrested suspect, and the soldiers are left to face the crowd. Armitage clearly cannot cope, and not knowing what to do, orders the troops to withdraw. In the confusion, Hook and one of his friends are separated, and overwhelmed by the crowd, losing their rifles in the process. When the crowd is calmed by a distressed housewife, it seems that they may get away, but a young Republican steps forward, and shoots Hook’s colleague dead. Hook runs off, and the film begins in earnest, from that moment.
A thrilling chase through the back streets and alleyways of the city leaves the viewer on the edge of their seat. Chased relentlessly by two young men firing pistols, Hook rushes around the unfamiliar area, running into dead ends, jumping over walls, and narrowly escaping being shot, on many occasions. It is exciting stuff indeed, with none of the sensationalism associated with similar Hollywood productions, and a real sense of danger and fear at all times. Hook eventually finds sanctuary in a dingy outside lavatory, and his pursuers return to their car, determined to continue looking for him. Once it gets dark, Hook leaves his hideout, and meets up with a young boy. At first he fears discovery, but the boy is a staunch Protestant, and takes him through the side streets and waste ground, to relative safety in a local pub, a hangout for Protestant supporters and loyalist fighters.
Meanwhile, Captain Browning and his sidekick have been asked to go out and find the missing soldier. They have already arrived at the same pub, where they gave explosives to the Protestant fighters there, with instructions to attack a local Republican group. We see the supposed duplicity of the undercover army officers, playing both sides, with informers from the Republican side, as well as allies on the side of the Protestants. Hook sees the army sergeant showing the men how to place the bomb, and the same sergeant notices him in the bar too. When Hook leaves the bar, there is a huge explosion, killing everyone inside, except the army sergeant, who has already left. Hook is wounded in the blast, and once again runs off into the night. We see the interaction between the undercover soldiers, who have realised that they were spotted by Hook, and that the bomb had detonated by accident.
The two Republican factions blame each other for the blast, fearing retribution from both the British Army, and the Protestant fighters. Hook is dazed by the explosion, and heads off in the wrong direction, up to the Divis Flats, a Catholic stronghold. Collapsing from his wounds, he is found by a passing couple, a father and daughter returning home. The man carries the wounded soldier back to his flat, and tends to his wounds. He tells Hook that he was once a serving soldier in the army himself, and was a medic. But the presence of a soldier in their home puts them in great danger, so the man contacts the leader of one Republican faction, Boyle, hoping that he will arrange to return the soldier to his barracks. But Boyle is also an informant, and tells Captain Browning where to find the missing man. In the meantime, the leader of the second faction, Quinn, the man who shot the first soldier and then chased Hook, is still searching, and has seen Boyle go to the man’s flat.
In the exciting climax, Hook escapes from the flat, and is chased around the dark stairwells by Quinn’s men, as he frantically looks for a way out. Captain Browning arrives, with the rest of Hook’s platoon, and they too join the search. When Hook is captured, and taken to a basement to be killed, it looks as if it is all over. But Browning’s sergeant arrives, killing Quinn, and wounding his accomplice. In a final twist, the same sergeant then tries to strangle the wounded Hook, fearful that he will give away their involvement with the pub bombing. Just as the rest of the platoon arrive, the wounded Republican shoots the undercover sergeant, ironically saving the life of the young soldier he had spent all day trying to kill.
This film is a real treat. Thrilling yet thoughtful, historically accurate, yet making no unnecessary points or moral statements. Anyone of a certain age who can remember the time period will delight in the authentic clothing and hairstyles, the cars, even the decor inside the houses. Similarly, anyone who has ever seen any footage from the time, will be appreciative of the details; everything from the army equipment, to the impression of the tension around the claustrophobic streets, at times with almost a documentary feel to it. A great cast make the most of a tight script, and the pace is always just right too. It is also worth noting that this was filmed in the main in Blackburn, not Belfast, and it fills in for that troubled city perfectly.
Sean Harris delivers his usual standout performance as the conniving Captain Browning, and Jack O’Connell is completely convincing as Hook; out of his depth, in a city he doesn’t know, surrounded by people he cannot trust. A superb British thriller, this film drew high praise from the critics, and won many awards. You will understand why.