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Monday, October 13, 2014

'71: Initial thoughts, review

Went to see '71 at Bradford's National Media Museum on its day of release, October 10th 2014. Alongside about a dozen others in total; a very sparsely attended screening (including one patron slowly consuming a huge tub of frozen yoghurt with a tiny spoon - knitting might be a better option there to keep the hands busy!). I'm told this is fairly common: until The Guardian review comes through, there is often limited awareness of non-mainstream films like this, an interesting reflection of the ABC1 skew of the NMM's staple audience.

As the DVD will be a while (presumably) in coming, I fervently scribbled down notes afterwards, some of which I'll sum up below. You could save yourself the bother, and just watch Mark Kermode's R5 review below ... the be-quiffed master pundit raised some very specific reference points which I'd noted myself, although I think my own take was always going to be somewhat informed by being a Northern Irish viewer of this ostensibly 'Troubles' movie.

I'll start on this point as any expectation of this as a Ken Loach-style political movie (Hidden Agenda (1990), subject of intense flak from the right-wing press and the Thatcher government, being a prime example - although I would contest that it is not as radical as generally believed, and is quite conservative in some regards) seems to be wide of the mark. This is (very enthusiastically) picked up on and discussed as part of this week's Guardian Film Show. The assumption within their discourse is that films with a political polemic (ie, axe to grind) must be dull, which I wouldn't agree with.

I do agree that this is a film which touches on political issues but that is actually a thriller first and foremost.

Still have a lot of notes from my cinema viewing to work through, but here's a reminder of some key points raised as we viewed '71:

The protagonist, Gary, is from a poor, working-class background: an orphan, we see him visiting his brother in a care home in one of the early scenes. This is consistent with most of Warp's output, and indeed with the social realist genre - though this is as much a thriller as anything else. Simple choices help underscore this: just as in TisEng, we see the protagonist going to a greasy spoon cafe - if we were thinking how this might look as a WT movie, wouldn't we expect a Hugh Grant to be in a wine bar rather than a greasy spoon? Think about how this class binary further extends - there is one 'buffoon' in the openeing section, and that's the CO with the refined Southern English accent. A rougher-voiced Scottish officer questions his decision, but he insists the soldiers remove their riot gear and put on berets ... with fatal consequences. In many WT films it is the working-class characters who are the buffoons: Spike answering the door to the world's press in his stained y-fronts (Notting Hill), the indicpherable Scottish matron (Wild Child), etc. You can see too how regional identity and social class are often closely linked.

On the one hand, handheld is the dominant mode of cinematography, connoting low budget. On the other, we have many crowd scenes, necessitating expensive wardrobe and makeup preparation, and a drone (or helicopter) aerial shot of Belfast. The extent of the military vehicles (and costume) also signifies considerable production expense to achieve verisimilitude. Furthermore, we get a range of stunts and SFX, notably explosions and fires. This is by far Warp's most expensive production - £8m is quite high for any UK film company, never mind Warp, even if WT have routinely been churning out £20m+ productions for years.

Verisimilitude can also be achieved by moderately cheap attention to detail: just as we get 'Maggie is a Twat' and 'Skrewdriver' as graffitti on the church (hut) and subway respectively in TisEng, here we see wall murals and graffitti such as 'No Surrender'.

Getting a whole row of terraced houses with the inner walls partially knocked through is another indicator of where the budget might have gone.

AGE RATING - 15?!:
Its interesting to compare the age rating with TisEng (18), and even speculate if the much higher than usual budget worked in its favour in this regard. One of the BBFC's key concerns is replicable (mis)behaviour, so a nunchuka scene in Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon remained banned in the UK for decades as it was feared young kids would mimic this behaviour (despite the 18 rating), and some knife scenes from Tomb Raider (a 12) were cut by the BBFC for the same reason. The swearing is fairly incessant in this movie, notably from the young lad who takes Gary to the pub. Sweet Sixteen got slapped with an 18 over the issue of teens swearing, though that was specifically for the 'c-word'.

The film also has considerable violence, which is where the contrast with TisEng can be made. There is gore, and the early shooting scene is shocking, and there are hard-hitting torture scenes later on too. TisEng got an 18 mainly for the climactic violent scene, even though this was clearly central to the moral message of the film. It is somewhat curious then that '71 got a 15 - but utterly crucial to its prospects. Yes, as Fifty Shades of Grey has shown, money can be made with an 18 (it holds the record), but it is no coinidence that the vast majority of WT films are 12/15 rated, as this greatly increases the likelihood of box office success (as teens are the key cinema-going audience).

The fate of WT2's  Mickybo and Me (just one week of cinema distribution ... and only in NI, for £170k from a $5m budget) is a good example of the risk involved in not setting a UK film in London/S. England, with the additional normative element of refined middle-class Southern English accents. Despite WT's incredible advantages (as a vertically integrated subsidiary of a big 6 conglomerate able, until recently, to almost guarantee in-house distribution), the very similar Son of Rambow (both films centre on two boys obsessed with a classic film) made $10m from a £4.5m budget. Unlike Mickybo, it did use the typical setting/accent.

So ... was '71 therefore doomed to failure? In a word: no. It was much less likely to succeed, but as another WT2 production, Billy Elliot, showed, big box office is possible with seemingly uncommercial production strategies: social realism, no stars, regional setting/accents. That £4m movie made an incredible £73m! Crucially, the narrative closely echoed the 'American dream' concept of the little guy making it against the odds. '71 is a much more downbeat film; there is no feelgood ending, another production strategy that commercially-minded filmmakers will use.

Key to the prospects of '71, arguably, was the choice of making an English character the central protagonist. Much of the UK (never mind wider, international) audience will be fairly bewildered by much of the scenery, accents and dialect. The bin-lid banging (used to warn of the approach of police/army) is a good example, and lets not forget how even a younger NI audience might struggle to follow the preferred reading here: we now live in age of plastic wheely bins, not the aluminium bins of old!

Crucially, Gary is every bit as befuddled and alienated as the notional audience. With all the usual framing devices (POV shots etc), we are strongly encouraged to identify with him, and his response generally echoes what 'we' are expected to feel. As a Northern Irishman who lived through this era, my response is slightly different, and I am less automatically inclined to identify with Gary, but the bulk of the audience is likely to share Gary's bewilderment and alienation.

This is quite a commercial approach - downgrade the potential damage of an NI setting by using the device of an English protagonist. We see this in many examples, even supposedly highly political films such as Ken Loach's Hidden Agenda ... which kicks off with English and American characters literally looking down on the baffling Northern Irish below them in a Belfast street scene, and explicitly remarking on how strange they are. The film is set in NI, but the Northern Irish are actually the other!

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