VOD film review: ’71
James R | On 05, Mar 2015
Director: Yann Demange
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris
’71 follows Gary (O’Connell), a young private who gets shipped off to Belfast to help keep the peace. Things start off innocuously enough, as he helps out on an uneasy house raid – berets, not helmets, orders his commanding officer, Armitage (Sam Reid) – but things go to pot at a scarily quick speed, as people are shoved, stoned and shot without warning. Suddenly, he’s stranded behind enemy lines in the Catholic neighbourhood, and badly wounded.
Debut director Yann Demange eases us into the story with a military efficiency. Once our rookie’s feet have touched the ground, though, they don’t stop running: things accelerate at a blistering speed, one that casts everything and everyone as a component in a never-ending game of cat and mouse. By day, the troops look over a clear map of the town and its neighbourhoods. By night, the alleys and fences turn into a disorienting maze of fire, smoke and guns.
Demange captures the descent into darkness as a surreal nightmare of blacks, blood-reds and orange. Hook’s camouflage green stands out, not only because of its colour but because he has no allegiance in this fight: he signed up for personal reasons, with his brother (son? cousin?) still in a children’s home.
Through it all, Jack O’Connell shines. It’s a physical performance more than a verbal one and, after his impressive turns in Starred Up and Unbroken, he’s equally intense as a young man simply trying to stay alive. Fuelled by O’Connell’s panicked expressions, that single truth is what gives Gregory Burke’s script its simple power: regardless of the context, conflict kills.
If you go in expecting a history lesson, you may well be surprised at the apparent absence of political debate. Politics with a small ‘p’ runs rife in the chaotic streets, from factions fighting for control to corrupt secret service officers double-crossing each other to maintain authority. Hook is caught up in the middle of it, sheltered by kind souls (watch out for Richard Dormer as a medic), hunted by others and tracked by the concerned Armitage.
Demange shoots his complex web of characters with a raw immediacy. Unexpected explosions are as devastating as they are deafening, while regular shots of one young Irish gang member, all blank face and seemingly eager obedience – plus a scene-stealing turn by Corey McKinley as a kind adolescent – only emphasises the age of those affected by this warzone.
The constant tension surrounding them all weaves peril and politics together so that there is no distinction. The nail-biting 90 minutes are edited together flawlessly to mount a breathless sprint with no time for heavy-handed lectures or unsubtle exposition. By the time the hour and a half is up, you realise neither are needed: soldiers and children blur together on both sides. “It was a confused situation,” insists one officer after the event, a phrase that conjures up thoughts of cover-ups and cock-ups with a contemporary resonance. Almost 50 years on and the phrase “the troubles” has never felt more urgent.