Imagine this nightmarish scenario; you are a stranger, in a strange land. You are separated from your friends in the midst of a riot. You do not know how to get home, and what’s worse there are strangers, who if they find you, will kill you.
’71 directed by Yann Demange, brings this terrifying thought to reality in one of the most intense, action thrillers in recent years. Jack O’Connell (Skins, Starred Up and Unbroken), stars as British soldier; Private Gary Hook, who becomes separated from his unit while conducting a house search in Belfast during The Troubles, in 1971.
The film plays out as an intense, lone survivor story. The tension is always balanced on a knife’s edge as Hook risks his very life navigating Belfast in an effort to return to his barracks before conspiring forces find him and kill him.
The movie also features veteran bad guy Sean Harris (Southcliffe, Prometheus), as the shadowy Browning and the current cream of Irish acting talent including; Richard Dormer (Good Vibrations) and Charlie Murphy (Philomena, Love/Hate) as, Eamon, and Bridget. Barry Keoghan produces a memorable turn as the young and impressionable Sean. Killian Scott (Calvary) and Martin McCann (Shadow Dancer, Boogaloo and Graham) also star as homicidal members of the paramilitaries.
However, this is undoubtedly Jack O’Connell’s film. Very few films, if any, tell the story of The Troubles, from the perspective of a British soldier. O’Connell brings a great deal of pathos to the role of the young soldier. Hook represents the everyman, he appears to have joined the army to escape from the care home where his younger brother still resides. He perhaps sees the army as a way of bettering himself, perhaps even giving a sense of family he never had. He has been trained for war, but he is not prepared for what he meets on the streets of Belfast. It is a test of endurance for Hook as the action moves at break-neck speed. The film utilises gritty cinematography, effective use of lighting and explosive set-pieces to create several memorable scenes but it is O’Connell’s central performance that helps establish the terrifying, claustrophobic, almost impossible task he faces in trying to reach safety.
One of the most impressive aspects of the film is its handling of the subject matter. In the past there have been a number of films set against the backdrop of the troubles in Northern Ireland. Such films have often been littered with stereotypes and a misplaced understanding of the political conflict. ’71 largely avoids many of the clichés associated with The Troubles. In the way that Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven reflected revisionist thinking about the American West, ’71 features a script by Gregory Burke, which presents a more modern perspective on the conflict in Northern Ireland. It touches on many of the controversial, dark and most violent aspects of the conflict. The film does not present any clear narrative on The Troubles, instead it presents a variety of arguments, highlighting the fragmented and contentious nature of politics in Northern Ireland. It is also one of the few movies on this subject matter to capture the emotion, atmosphere and anxiety in Belfast during the early seventies.
’71 is an immensely enjoyable historical action thriller. You will be captivated by the drama, tension and the uncertainty of the outcome right up until the climax. Jack O’Connell’s stand out performance as Private Gary Hook is further evidence of why he deserved this year’s BAFTA Rising Star Award. It is surely the sign of great things to come for O’Connell.