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