With an explosive performance from Jack O’Connell, Yann Demange’s ’71 leads us through the violent backstreets of the Troubles, quite literally.
Odd Man Out by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
From Alan Clarke’s Elephant via Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday and Steve McQueen’s Hunger, Northern Ireland has long been international territory – a cinematic backdrop for directors from all over the world to make serious, hard-hitting, political movies. Of course, it’s no different with London born and bred Yann Demange and his feature debut ‘71, but taking the perspective of a British marine on his first mission, it’s very much an outsider’s perspective – unpartisan and on unfamiliar ground. But as he ventures unwillingly into the terrifying unknown, life on both sides of the peace line comes rapidly into focus – and it’s enough to steer one young soldier away from the murky world of ‘for Queen and country’ completely.
It’s 1971, and teenage Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) has just finished his training. Violence in Northern Ireland is escalating and his unit is dispatched to the province to keep the peace. Gary says goodbye to his only family – his younger brother Darren (Harry Verity) who is kept under lock and key at a residential school. Soon after he finds himself driving through the streets of Belfast in a tank, but when Nationalists start a riot, and murder his squaddie mate point blank, Gary becomes separated from his unit, stranded in no-man’s-land and forced to find his own way out of this terrifying tinderbox. With no knowledge of either the streets or their peoples, Gary comes across both Loyalists and Republicans on the way – quickly learning about life in the Troubles and who not to trust.
Relying for much of its running time on Jack O’Connell’s almost single-handed performance, ‘71 is a visceral depiction of being caught behind enemy lines. Much like O’Connell’s outstanding performance in David Mackenzie’s Starred Up, it’s a muscularly charismatic piece of acting that carries us with Private Hook on his odyssey through Belfast’s divided underworld, fraught with nervous tension and an all too palpable danger. With a camera fixed on the hapless squaddie as he runs down narrow back alleys, ’71 is engagingly filmed in the first person, but veers occasionally into videogame territory, as his heroic avatar navigates his escape from the ticking timebomb of the Troubles.
Defiantly unpartisan, both loyalists and republicans are treated fairly – picking up, for the most part, the stories of everyday people on both sides of the peace line caught up in street politics. And the villain of the piece comes in the shape of the British Army – a much safer bet – cutting dodgy deals and leading its legions of lambs to the slaughter. It’s just “Posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts” – the art of war has never been so aptly summarised. It’s true, Demange’s film is no political analysis of Northern Ireland; it’s an action thriller with the Troubles reduced to a grimy urban backdrop of violent unpredictability. But pleading the cause for the lowly private, crushed by an old boys’ club of corrupt indifference and blind gung-ho optimism, ’71 is an utterly captivating tribute to the unknown soldier.
’71 is released on 10th October 2014 in the UK