Troubles-set thriller ’71 is ‘such a gripping experience that you’ll forget its few nagging imperfections’ says MacDara Conroy
Broken down into its constituent parts, Yann Demange’s feature debut ’71 is all formula. Its setting – Belfast at the height of the Troubles, hence that vaguely enigmatic title, also an ironic reference to that year’s mistimed celebratory Ulster Expo – is well-travelled filmic territory at this stage. (Good films, too: In the Name of the Father, Bloody Sunday and Hunger, to name a few, are a lot to live up to.) And its main plot – a young squaddy from the English Midlands is left behind by his unit in the wrong part of Belfast, and his higher-ups don’t necessarily want him found again – variously evokes John Carpenter’s multiple Rio Bravo reimaginings, Bosnian War actioner Behind Enemy Lines and even Gene Hackman’s lost-in-Vietnam flick Bat*21. But if ever a film is greater than the sum of its parts, we have it here, and that’s mostly down to the central role.
As Private Gary Hook, Jack O’Connell is the flipside of the brash young hard-man persona he cultivated in last year’s breakthrough prison drama Starred Up. Lost in the streets of Belfast even before he’s separated from his unit and forced to literally run for his life like a one-man Warriors, his nonplussed expression exudes fear and vulnerability. Even as he progresses through the war-torn streets, surviving by the kindness of battle-scarred strangers like former army medic Eamon (Richard Dormer, Good Vibrations) as he’s pursued by an IRA splinter group led by the stone-faced Quinn (Killian Scott, Love/Hate), he doesn’t really grow in the kind of battle-hardened confidence you might expect.
When he acts, at times violently, it’s at best a reflex, a spur-of-the-moment, kill-or-be-killed decision, for he’s coming from a place of deep-seated uncertainly, a notion established by bookending sequences that show him hanging out with his kid brother back home in the Peak District, his only escape from the treachery of the wider world. And it is indeed treacherous, as not only must Pvt Hook navigate the mean streets of a city consumed by mindless sectarianism, he’s also a pawn in a dangerous game being played by British military top brass, ostensibly in Ireland to ‘support’ the shit-kicking RUC in their Fenian-bashing rounds but in reality plying their decades-old trade of divide and rule, a motive even plummy unit commander Lt Armitage (Sam Reid) has trouble comprehending.
O’Connell’s performance here, coupled with Demange’s grasp of tension and supported by David Holmes’ subliminal soundtrack, makes ’71 such a gripping experience that you’ll forget its few nagging imperfections. Though visually some verité-style scenes stand out, as does the way Demagne uses the red-brick terraces like a maze to induce a powerful claustrophobia, the overall look is workmanlike, fine for television (he’s a veteran of gritty police procedural dramas for ITV) yet a tad lacking for the larger canvas of the big screen. There are some historical anachronisms, perhaps inevitable viewing this time through the prism of change. And among the cast, Armitage is a little too Tim Nice But Dim for comfort (not to mention his close resemblance to Chris Morris) while the sinister undercover operatives, led by moustachioed Sean Harris, seem plucked from a ’70s-themed comedy sketch.
Yet such first impressions are quickly cast away by Demange’s command of the material, and O’Connell’s command of the screen. It’s all about Pvt Hook and his odyssey, and we’re right there with him as he rounds every corner into the unknown.