Review – ’71

The Troubles serve as a suitably murky backdrop to this taut and absorbing thriller that a young John Carpenter would be proud of.

One of the year's most suspensful thrillers, '71 is edge-of-the-seat stuff and another feather in the cap for its leading man

One of the year’s most suspenseful thrillers, ’71 is edge-of-the-seat stuff and another feather in the cap for its leading man

It’s been quite a year for Jack O’Connell, the rising star of the superb prison drama Starred Up and Angelina Jolie’s latest Unbroken.

What makes O’Connell stand out is the honesty of his performances and the physical and emotional spectrum he’s able to tap into. He brings that range to bear in his portrayal of Gary Hook, a recent army recruit whose regiment is shipped off to Belfast during the height of the Troubles – the political and sectarian conflict between Irish nationalists and unionists loyal to the Queen.

You're in the army now: Soldier Gary Hook (Jack 'O'Connell) in '71

You’re in the army now: Soldier Gary Hook (Jack ‘O’Connell) in ’71

The regiment (and the viewer, of course) are reminded that, by being deployed to Northern Ireland, they “are not leaving this country”, but when they arrive and are sent to support the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s search for guns along the Falls Road – the fault line that largely separated unionists and nationalists – director Yann Demange potently illustrates just how far away from ‘home’ these young men suddenly feel.

Essentially thrown in at the deep end, their disorientation and fear spirals as they are confronted first by women banging dustbin lids on the ground (to warn fellow Republicans that British soldiers are approaching) and then by an increasingly angry mob. Hook gets cut off from his fellow soldiers when he’s sent after a boy who has snatched a rifle and, following the regiment’s hasty retreat, must fight for survival behind enemy lines.

I predict a riot: things turn ugly in '71

I predict a riot: things turn ugly in ’71

And while the solider tries to evade capture by hiding out (and gets a lesson in soldiering from Richard Dormer’s kindly Eamon, who describes it as “posh c***s telling thick c***s to kill poor c***s”), he becomes a pawn in a larger game being played between senior IRA members and shadowy British operatives led by Sean Harris’ Captain Browning.

Escape from Belfast: Hook (Jack O'Connell) tries to think of a way out in '71

Escape from Belfast: Hook (Jack O’Connell) tries to think of a way out in ’71

The Troubles have inspired some absorbing cinema and ’71 can sit proudly alongside the likes of Alan Clarke’s Elephant (1989), Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda (1990) and Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday (2002).While not as overtly political as those films, Gregory Burke’s economical script doesn’t ignore it either, although the briefing to senior officers prior to all hell breaking loose does come across as a little too ‘are you paying attention?’.

The film is at its strongest when following the hapless Hook as he stumbles from one terrifying episode to the next. A heart-pounding cat and mouse chase between the fleeing soldier and two gun-toting young IRA members is brilliantly done, while an explosive scene in a pub and its nightmarish aftermath as Hook staggers through what resemble the streets of hell makes you question whether he’ll make it out of there.

Troubles, troubles: Life in Belfast circa '71

Troubles, troubles: Life in Belfast circa ’71

Anthony Radcliffe’s immersive and atmospheric cinematography, the murky nighttime setting, David Holmes’ retro-inflected score and the questionable loyalties of its characters bring to mind Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 (1976), while the against-the-odds battle to survive tips a wink to Escape From New York (1981); comparisons not made lightly, but ones that speak very highly of just how impressive ’71 is.

One of the year’s most suspenseful thrillers, ’71 is edge-of-the-seat stuff and another feather in the cap for its leading man.

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16 comments

  1. le0pard13 · December 23, 2014

    Definitely one of my must-sees before the year is out. Fine review, Mark.

  2. Andrew · December 23, 2014

    I really can’t wait for this. O’Connell just seems to be having the year of his career. I can’t wait to see what all this attention and hype does for him going forward. Great write up!

    • Three Rows Back · December 27, 2014

      Ah, thanks buddy. He’s one of the most interesting young actors around at the moment; I look forward to seeing where he is 12 months from now.

  3. Stu · December 23, 2014

    Nice job. I really enjoyed this, and the two scenes you mentioned really were nailbiting. That chase through the houses is something else isn’t it?!

    • Three Rows Back · December 26, 2014

      It’s awesome. Proper heart-pounding stuff. Merry Christmas Stu!

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  5. ruth · December 24, 2014

    This looks REALLY intense! I just saw the trailer again last night. Jack O’Connell is definitely on the rise, nice to see Sam Reid here too, love him in Belle.

    • Three Rows Back · December 26, 2014

      Hey Ruth, Merry Christmas! We’re seeing the birth of a new star I think.

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  7. Tom · December 27, 2014

    Very cool stuff Mr. Fletcher. I one day hope to see this, but I honestly don’t have it prioritized awfully high. I’m looking for Jack O’Connell, though. I must say. As you point out: this, Jolie’s ‘Unbroken,’ and ‘Starred Up’ are all impressive-sounding numbers. What a good year for the man.

    Hope your Christmas has gone well man. Get any good DVDs? Totally forgot I requested ‘Her,’ and that just about made my year. 😀

    • Three Rows Back · December 27, 2014

      It’s been a great Christmas, thanks mate. Hope yours has been a good ‘un. Enjoy ‘Her’! ’71 is one of those films that can be watched on the small screen and it won’t lose very much. There’s too much good stuff to catch up with isn’t there? We’re spoiled!

  8. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · December 31, 2014

    Top review mate! I was annoyed I missed this at the cinema so will definitely be giving it a rental. Really like Jack O’Connell, so interested to see how he gets on here.

    • Three Rows Back · January 1, 2015

      Cheers Chris and Happy New Year! O’Connell is a real prescence and I can’t wait to see how his 2015 turns out.

  9. Mark Walker · February 18, 2015

    You had me at John Carpenter! I was always fairly interested in this one, Mark but you’ve totally sold me on it now. I’ll definitely be checking this out.

    • Three Rows Back · February 18, 2015

      Ha ha! Yes, I invoke Carpenter advisedly. It’s a great, grubby little thriller and O’Connell gives a really solid turn as the stricken soldier. Cheers Mark!

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