By Niall McKenna, Contributer.
“The situation is complicated, to say the least”; in just one line, the themes of confusion and treachery that run through Yann Demange’s bruising debut are succinctly captured. Set at the height of the Troubles,’71 follows Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), a newly-trained grunt in the British Army who is accidentally left behind by his unit during a Belfast riot. Hunted by the IRA he is forced to run. His supposed Loyalist allies offer no more safety than the undercover Captain Brown (Sean Harris) and his men, who have their own interests in the protagonist.
Rising star Jack O’Connell is superb in his role as Hook. We have seen him do anger and arrogance in Starred Up, but this is an altogether different character; pensive and terrified, almost wordless but conveying extraordinary grief and pain. The brutal tone is immediately established with a soldier-against-soldier boxing match. Yet, led by the ineffective Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid), we soon see that these naïve men are not prepared for any real conflict. Called as reinforcements to a house raid on the Falls Road the soldiers quickly lose control. This is reflected brilliantly in the camera work; our perspectives shake and judder as the soldiers are pelted with rocks and shoved by the crowd. The tension built here never lets up. Demange succeeds in placing us right in the action.
Although filmed in Blackburn, ’71 is distinctly Belfast. Brick terrace houses and burnt-out cars evoke the turbulent time. Much of the film is shot at night and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe transforms the city into something almost apocalyptic as fire bursts onto the streets and gunmen stalk in the dark, accompanied by David Holme’s soundtrack. The warning bang of bin lids and the trance-like sounds in the aftermath of a bomb create both foreboding and shock.
Demange remains largely apolitical with ‘71, instead focusing on the characters grounded in the conflict. Quinn (Killian Scott) and Boyle (David Wilmot) are fantastic, playing opposing figures in the Provisional and Official IRA. The generational and ideological gap between them and the volatile relationship between the British Army and Loyalist paramilitaries truly drives the narrative. It is here writer Gregory Burke engineers the terrifying realities of guerrilla warfare into a compelling story of mistrust and treachery.
Whether you are familiar with the era of the Troubles or not, ’71 is a brilliant film. It is all at once a tremendous action thriller and a violent but truthful portrait of Northern Ireland’s tumultuous history.