‘71. Jack O'Connell, Sam Reid, Paul Anderson, Richard Dormer. Directed by Yann Demange. 100 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong themes, violence and coarse language).
Equal parts gripping thriller, survival horror and political history, this British indie film made a name for its director Yann Demange on its debut last year. It’s easy to see why – boasting solid, natural performances across the board and a haunting marriage of political realism to fever dream imagery, this is one that stays with you.
Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is a young English soldier stationed with his regiment in Belfast, Northern Ireland during The Troubles. During a routine house inspection along the volatile Divis Street, a Catholic Nationalist riot rises up, and Gary and a fellow soldier are accidentally separated from their squad. When Gary’s comrade is brutally executed by a Nationalist youth, he goes on the run in a city bristling in the throes of its own civil war. His would-be killers give chase, and the night becomes a game of cat and mouse beset on all sides by conflicting motivations and allegiances.
Jack O’Connell has been moving from strength to strength of late, playing troubled young men in extraordinary situations with unmatched aptitude. In ‘Starred Up’, ‘Unbroken’ and now ‘’71’, he has proven himself to be an engaging, physically gifted performer, wearing his characters with an ease which belies their unsettled interiors. Demange has largely filled the cast with veteran character actors who most outside of Britain would struggle to recognise, but they reward his judgement with absorbing performances, showcasing a solid grip on the inter-character dynamics and psychological consequences of their many difficult choices. The script from Gregory Burke makes a fascinating study of a very difficult period in history – while it may not be as politically minded as other efforts, it manages to explore a great deal more than your average action thriller. Each choice is given consequence and emotional heft by Burke, and the cast live up to their end of this bargain.
The look of ‘’71’ is remarkable – cinematographer Tat Radcliffe melds Super 16 and digital footage into a nicely dated aesthetic, and manages to transform the urban setting into a hellish nightmare. Though early segments of Gary’s evasion suffer from over utilised ‘shaky cam’, it moves past this quickly. Alternating between cramped, Stygian interiors and the scorched, lamp-lit streets, production designer Chris Oddy has done a commendable job, capturing the unique time and place convincingly. Composer David Holmes and the sound design team have also done their work commendably, using it as another layer with which to immerse the audience and Gary into every life and death moment and adrenaline inducing escape.
The only trouble with the film may be the ‘black and white’, ‘us vs. them’ morality at its core. The Catholic Nationalists and the Protestant Loyalists have been equally eulogised and demonised in countless films over the decades, but ‘’71’ seems to paint them both with a broad brush. This arrangement of course suits its lean and thrilling underpinnings of a man pitted against his surroundings, but some sympathy for the antagonists would not have gone astray in developing a more rounded picture.
That said, Yann Demange is a talent to look out for. With the similarities of subject and quality, I was reminded of director Steve McQueen’s 2008 debut ‘Hunger’. Seeing how far both McQueen and his star Michael Fassbender have come since then, expect more great things from Demange and O’Connell in the future.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out March 19.
Entertainment One Films.