Yann Demange offers up a fantastic debut with ’71, a film set just before the most brutal year of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Taking place in the year preceding Bloody Sunday, it’s safe to say the tension is rife: there are rifts between the British and Irish; the Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Loyalists; and between the different factions on each side.
It was a busy Saturday afternoon at work when my friend suddenly decided I was a suitable back-up plan for her evening. I was spared an evening of bowling failures (spared… geddit?) thanks to her raging hormones. We’d seen the trailer for ’71when we went to see TheRiot Club although our reactions to it were pretty different. Whilst I’d seen a historically and aesthetically interesting thriller, she saw an opportunity to stare at Jack O’Donnell for nearly 2 hours. Never mind, eh? I can think of worse reasons to sit in a dark room on a Saturday night. Plus, she’s been threatening to drag me to endless Zac Efron films for the last few years so I’m just too grateful when our interests overlap to really care why.
Unfortunately for Private Gary Hook, he’s about to be thrown in at the deep end. Hook (Jack O’Connell) is a young man who joined the army in an attempt to escape his fairly dismal upbringing. However, rather than finding an easy path to honour in Germany, Hook is deployed to Belfast to get a handle on the increasingly shitty situation that’s unfolding.
Through a series of military oversights, Hook’s unit find themselves in one of the most dangerous areas in the city without adequate protection. The group are tasked with assisting the Royal Ulster Constabulary to carry out raids in Catholic residences. The situation soon gets out of hand and Hook is cut off from his fellow soldiers with pretty much everyone baying for his blood. He has to find his way home in an unfamiliar environment and weave his way through all of the double-crossing going on around him.
Gregory Burke ends up juggling a large number of balls throughout his screenplay, as he introduces people from all sides of the conflict, all of whom have their own agenda. Unfortunately, this means that there is little in the way of real character development and a certain amount of ambiguity clouding each of the plot-strands. At times the leap of faith required to accept that Hook would naturally fall into each camp at significant points is a bit much but Burke, building on the success of his stage show Black Watch, seems to have good enough ball-control to create a workable plot.
Of course, this could be helped by his decision not to bog down the film with any pesky socio-political context. For all the significance of the Troubles in ’71’s setting, the film doesn’t pretend to be any kind of historical document. Ignoring the documentary style of works like Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday, ’71 is more like an action-horror film set in a specific context. The hows and whys are never discussed and Burke doesn’t attempt to make any judgements about the conflict as a whole. Instead, he tries, and for the most part succeeds, in painting a realistic yet vague portrait of the various attitudes in Ireland at the time.
This isn’t a film about the Irish Troubles but something that concerns itself with the reaction of an innocent outsider. Hook finds himself caught in the middle of a conflict he doesn’t have a hope of understanding. Demange doesn’t set out to teach us about such an important time in recent history but to put this young man in one of the shittest environments of recent years and see if he can survive.
What he managed to create led to one of the most tense cinema experiences I’ve ever had. Having just come off a hectic Saturday shift I wasn’t exactly in the right frame of mind for this survival thriller. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so fucking stressed out by a film. Of course, this is the definitive mark that it’s doing its job properly. The story unfolds at break-neck speed and Demange has worked hard to ensure that every detail of this film helps to ramp up the tension. With production design turning modern day Liverpool into an almost alien version of 1970s Belfast, there is a real sense that Hook has wandered into the kind of post-apocalyptic nightmarish future that litters the FPS offerings in the games market these days.
There is never a moment for you to relax as Hook moves ever closer to the IRA stronghold that provides the setting for a dramatic final set piece. It is cinematographer Tat Radcliffe’s decision to switch between 16mm for the sequences that take place during the day and digital once the sun goes down that really help reflect Hook’s increasing vulnerability.
Of course, none of this tension would mean a damn thing if it weren’t for a noteworthy performance from leading man Jack O’Connell. Proving once again that he’s someone to watch out for, O’Connell brings charisma and strength to the young soldier that is perfectly offset by an underlying vulnerability that constantly reminds us that, underneath the uniform, he’s just a lost young man looking for a way home.
It’s just a crying shame that O’Connell isn’t given more to work with. Gary is, despite being on-screen for the nearly the entire 100 minute runtime, one of the most vague characters imaginable. With only a brief glimpse into his early life, you never get a sense of what Gary is about which means, after all the drama, you never get any kind of emotional or dramatic resolution. However, despite all of this frustrating ambiguity, ’71is a mesmerising film that goes to show it’s leading man, director and screenwriter all have great futures ahead of them.