Directed by Yann Demange
Written by Gregory Burke
Starring Jack O’Connell, Richard Dormer, Sean Harris
The Belfast depicted in this exciting new British thriller is a city spiralling out of control so fast that none of the factions involved have a handle on the situation.
’71 opens in deceptively generic fashion with a standard basic training sequence of the kind seen in film’s that seek to mythologise the experience of the soldier (see Lone Survivor from earlier this year). While the training looks uncomfortable in the extreme it is also the stuff of recruitment adverts. The sequence introduces nominal ‘hero’ Private Gary Hook (O’Connell). We learn a few key things about the character, he is from the North and grew up in care with a younger brother who sees him as a surrogate father. He is earthy, working class, enjoys a game of footie, but that is about as much depth as we are given.
With sectarian violence on the rise in Belfast, Hook’s unit is deployed in Northern Ireland. They are reassured that rather than a foreign conflict zone this is still Britain. Upon arrival the recruits are sent into a Catholic area of the city to aid local Ulster Constabulary in a series of house searches. The squad’s young upper class officer is as naive as the men under his charge and decides that they should go in without armour and riot gear in order to ‘reassure’ the Catholic population. However the heavy handed violence meted out by the police results in a riot.
The scenes of the soldiers arriving in the Catholic area of the city are suffused with a growing sense of dread that builds and builds as the situation on the ground rapidly deteriorates. When violence inevitably erupts it separates Hook from his unit and initiates a desperate chase through the warren-like backyards of the neighbourhood as he is pursued by gunmen. Hook’s attempts to reach the safety of his barracks are complicated when he becomes a witness to clandestine events that make him not only the quarry of a renegade Repiblican gunmen but also undercover British Army operatives led by one Captain Browning (Sean Harris in a truly frightening performance).
’71 is a remarkable action film that combines near unbearable levels of tension, blistering action sequences (the on-foot chase is the equal of Point Break’s), a gritty socially realistic milieu, and a surprising level of political and historical detail. If at times it seems reminiscent of a scaled back Black Hawk Down in which the vast ensemble cast of Ridley Scott’s film has been reduced to just Jack O’Connell looking terrified, ‘71 is far more balanced. It is standard to focus on the point of view of a soldier in a film of this sort, but where Black Hawk Down plays strictly through the US forces point of view and only really shows ‘the enemy’ as figures seen down gunsights, ’71 goes to great efforts to present rounded and sympathetic characters on both Catholic and Protestant sides of the Troubles.
The film divides into two halves, the first a kinetic descent into terror and ultimately abject horror with Hook purely reactive, desperate and vulnerable, just trying to stay alive. The second opens the film out, introduces more characters (including an excellent Richard Dormer as a catholic ex-army medic who is trying to stay apart from the conflict, and whose personal morals cause him to risk his life trying to help Hook).
There are elements of several filmmakers evoked by both Demange’s deft handling of action, and Gregory Burke’s taught and pared to the bone script. The second half of the film plays out almost like a Cavalry Western, as Hook’s squad mates try and rescue their comrade. There is a definite Hawksian element to the depiction of the Army as young men bonded by loyalty and care for each other. ‘71 presents these young men as innocents in a situation they do not understand, mostly working class and fodder in a situation being manipulated by dark forces of fanaticism.
The kinetic action and economical storytelling also evokes both John Carpenter and Walter Hill in their primes (Assault on Precinct 13 and Southern Comfort would be good comparison pieces) but the filmmaker that I was most reminded of is Katherine Bigelow. ’71 has some of the feel of a film like The Hurt Locker, incredibly exciting and made with a style that eschews obvious flourishes for an emphasises on an experiential approach that tries to place the audience frighteningly in the heart of the action. It is somewhat ironic that it is perhaps Bigelow’s least realistic and most pulpy thriller Point Break that is so directly referenced early in the film.
I want to be clear, I consider Bigelow to be perhaps the finest director of action since Sam Peckinpah, so for a first time director to make a film I can genuinely compare to her best work is quite extraordinary. I would add that Demange is also served very well by his DP Tat Radcliffe which whom he worked on Charlie Brooker’s excellent British zombie thriller for TV, Dead Set. David Holmes almost subliminal pulsing score also helps raise the levels of tension.
At the centre of the movie is O’Connell whose star is in the ascendent following Starred Up, and with Angelina Jolie’s epic war film Unbroken opening this Christmas. O’Connell reportedly had a hand in reducing his character’s dialogue to barely a dozen lines in the film. This has a story function as Hook’s accent could get him killed at several points in the film. This is excellently exploited in one scene that is both extremely intense and darkly humorous as he desperately tries to get past a group of men guarding a barricade without saying a word. O’Connell plays an action hero who is unusually passive, mostly reacting and evading. When opportunity allows him to take lethal defensive action the result is not triumphant but one of the film’s saddest scenes. This is an actor filling an action role, and doing so with a performance that seems free of ego. O’Connell is never trying to look ‘hard’ or ‘cool’, me mostly looks like he needs a change of underwear.
Which is fitting, as after experiencing ‘71 audience may well do also.