Steven Sheehan’s review published on Letterboxd:
For those who have seen Starred Up earlier in the year, the name of Jack O'Connell may have appeared on your radar for the first time. That was his first notable cinematic appearance, one that revealed the level of talent hopefully to follow. '71 is a different type of film, more in the thriller mode, with O'Connell once again taking the lead role, requiring a different set of skills to be displayed.
Anyone who grew up in the UK during the 70's or 80's were aware of the troubles in Northern Ireland, the ongoing battle between various groups on either side, predominantly led by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and the British armed forces. Yann Demange's directorial debut takes us back to the early days of the conflict when the IRA were building their power base in the region, in a two year period when the violence was at its most potent.
O'Connell isn't given much dialogue to work with as a soldier left stranded on the wrong side of the divide in the aftermath of a localised riot. He spends most of the film on the run, running or ducking through the shadows as both sides attempt to find him. Little of his personality comes through although Demange keeps the tension level rumbling along, giving us a chance to understand the invested parties pursuing their beliefs. He humanises the young men being drafted in to fight for larger political causes most of them never truly understood. We watch as live bleeds away under the lightening of gunfire, no-one really gaining an advantage amongst the bloodshed.
There are no real specifics attached to the story in terms of political stakes with more attention paid to the survival of soldier O'Connell. He gives a spirited performance through a presence that is always truly believable, as is the recreation of early 70's war zone that was Belfast. That leaves the audience to make a decision about how they want to see this version of events. It works effectively well as a thriller, although it could be suggested that the larger picture is cheapened by doing just that. Perhaps for those closer to the conflict, people who regularly saw the news reports and impact on the lives of those not so far away from their own, the story is somewhat light. For others distanced from the troubles or understanding it retrospectively, the lack of politicisation won't be an issue at all.
Either way, the film takes us vividly back to the hostile environment of that time and the echoes that continue to reverberate across other regions such as Palestine and Israel. O'Connell's reputation continues to grow and Demange introduces himself with an impressive first effort. The lasting message that rings true is about the personal impact of war on those far lower down the ranks whilst those barking the orders play their power games. A repetitive cycle that always and always will remain true, no matter where the conflict is taking place.