‘71 is a harrowing survival thriller set amidst confusion and conflict as Gary (Jack O’Connell), a young British solider, is abandoned behind enemy lines in 1971, Belfast. Placing nail-biting action against an apocalyptic vision of bomb torn Belfast, ’71 unnerves with its realism and nightmarish tension, proving director Yann Demange as an emerging cinematic force.
A riot control assignment proves to be anything but straightforward for the British military, deployed to a Belfast neighbourhood. It is patrolled by a factionalised IRA, interspersed with British spies, a year before Bloody Sunday. When violence breaks, the unprepared squadron proves impotent as youthful squaddie Gary becomes brutally separated from his comrades, pursued in a chase sequence reminiscent of Point Break, electrically charged with Demange already crafting his own fingerprint for action. The frenetic manhunt contains a pulsating tension that never releases its grasp as O’Connell’s black sheep is passed between Belfast’s crevices like a lamb to slaughter. The Northern Ireland Troubles emerge like nightmare, with Demange crafting a taut, unrelenting tension.
“I’d never had a burning desire to tell a story about Northern Ireland” says Demange. “But it was a remarkable piece of writing. It was muscular, visceral and utterly engaging.” Writer Gregory Burke, best known for his Laurence Olivier Award winning play Black Watch, possesses a laconic grasp upon the language of conflict, the simplest terms containing an evocative truth.
“To make it look as authentic as possible [Belfast] had to be fake,” explains producer Angus Lamont. Blackburn and Liverpool served as an uncanny replica to Belfast’s torn down terraces, whilst the brutalist architecture of Sheffield’s Park Hill Estate provided a doppelganger to the infamous Divis Estate. The film’s strange familiarity brings a real-life apocalypse to any unprepossessing street in the UK.
The film begins with a teenage soldier from Derbyshire, Gary Hook, on the brink of his first patrol. Hook says farewell to his little brother, living in the same children’s home both boys were presumably raised. Unlike his breakthrough performance in prison drama Starred Up (earning O’Connell a Best Actor BIFA nomination), O’Connell is granted remarkably little dialogue to work with. O’Connell is an economical actor who can do more with less. There is certainly an old-school, vivid masculinity to O’Connell’s presence. In ’71 he has the conviction to combine loneliness with strength and aggression, bringing such virtues together to become both terrified and terrifying. His starring role in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken later this year looks set to send his ‘rising star’ status into the ether.
Working alongside regular cinematographer Tat Radcliffe, Demange shoots the film’s daytime sequences on 16mm, whilst switching to digital at night as an effective means of illustrating Hook’s fluctuating consciousness. Belfast-born composer David Holmes writes a score reminiscent of John Carpenter’s work, striking certainty and discord in equal note. ’71 does not aim to grapple with the difficult issues of sectarian divide, but provides a terrifying, sensory depiction of a teen soldier trapped in a situation he can barely understand, a situation made to transcend its time and place through visceral creative choices.
Review by David Rank
’71 is out now in the UK. Running time 99 mins. Certificate 15 (UK).