A Startlingly Assured Debut, Demange’s ’71 Marks Him As A Promising Talent. O’Connell Bolsters His Leading Man Charm In This Gutsy Thriller.
I first visited Belfast in 1996, toward the tail end of the Troubles, but even then, to a young lad from Glasgow, the sight of soldiers with machine guns at the ferry terminal and public buildings ringed with towering steel fences capped with barbed-wire was a real eye-opener, instilling a deep sense of unease in my bones.
Even now, there are those who doubt the strength of the Good Friday peace agreement, officially brokered on April 11, 1998, but back in in ‘71, both the title and the date setting of Yann Demange’s debut feature, penned by award-winning playwright Gregory Burke (Black Watch), they were just kicking off. Only a year later Bloody Sunday would tear Northern Ireland asunder as warring factions including the British army, the UDF and the Provisional IRA engaged in bitter, decades-long struggle.
The breakout star of Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, Jack O’Connell proves once again he has real leading man charisma, though the trials he endures here are far more convincingly portrayed. He plays Gary, an English orphan who grew up in a care home with his younger brother, who would appear to have joined the British army to build some much-needed structure in his life. Unfortunately for him, the new recruit is barely out of training when his regiment is re-assigned to Belfast, purportedly to assist the assist the local police force amidst growing tensions.
The fragility of the situation is perhaps best summed up by Babou Ceesay’s corporal who bellows at the boys hunkering down on hastily-arranged camp beds in a commandeered school that they’ll only be here until such time as, “one of the Paddies shoots you.”
It’s while on their very first mission, searching the Falls Road door-to-door, that events spiral rapidly out of control and a riot flares up. Demange cleverly opens with dark humour as young boys hurl piss bombs at the soldiers, before rapidly escalating the threat level to skull-stoving rocks and then the sudden appearance of guns. During the chaos, a baying crowd hedges Gary and another young soldier against a wall, leading to a bone-chilling scene involving a sympathetic mother.
Terrified, injured and alone, Gary thus begins a herculean struggle to make his way back to base that burns with a visceral energy, pumping the heart full of adrenaline. The pace hardly slows from this moment on, with any brief respite generally signalling imminent danger. Fleeing from an IRA manhunt, he soon stumbles into UDF territory where he encounters the brilliant Corey McKinley as a potty-mouthed kid who holds sway over men twice his height.
Stand-out performances abound, with O’Connell in fine form and Good Vibrations’ Richard Dormer also excellent as a catholic former army doctor who shelters Gary against the advice of his nervous daughter Brigid (Charlie Murphy). Sean Harris’ is subtly sharp as duplicitous plain-clothes Captain Sandy Browning, supposedly in the British camp but seemingly working both the UDF and the IRA for personal gain. Like Game of Thrones, it pays not to get too attached to anyone.
Startlingly realised, there are shades of other films here, including Paul Greengrass’ seminal Bloody Sunday and Jim Sheridan’s harrowing In the Name of the Father, but there’s a lighter touch deployed in this even-handed affair, and that’s not to do down its incredible impact – this is a film that hurls you headlong into the very human heart of the maelstrom. Burke’s admirable script never glorifies one side over the other, showing both valour and deceit across battlelines, sparing us with a moment’s bleak laughter only to devastate a split second later.
Tat Radcliffe’s at one moment disorientatingly grimy then startlingly glacial cinematography, jumping from 16mm to digital seamlessly, is just as vital a character in this brutal thriller, as is David Holmes (Good Vibrations, Hunger) unsettling score. Brought in just short of 100 minutes, you’ll be gasping for air alongside O’Connell when ’71 reaches its exhilarating climax.
Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords