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.

Review – Starred Up

Just when you think you’ve seen all there is to offer from the well-worn prison genre, along comes this exhilarating and intelligent low-budget gem.

Starred Up Poster

Starred Up is as smart and uncompromising as it is ferocious. There’s a new daddy in town and this is it

From Cool Hand Luke (1967), to Midnight Express (1978), The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and about a million others, the prison movie lends itself to numerous different interpretations.

The most forgettable tend to be none-too-weighty action flicks that provide steady work for former wrestlers or MMA fighters, while the ones that stick in the memory are either allegorical (Cool Hand Luke‘s religious symbolism, for example) or have something to say about the world we live in.

Eric Love (Jack O'Connell) is Starred Up

Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is Starred Up

One of the best prison movies in recent years was Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2009) which, apart from being genuinely nail-biting, was also overt in its politics. There are hints of A Prophet in David Mackenzie’s brutal and electrifying Starred Up as it closely follows the travails of Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), a young inmate prematurely incarcerated into an adult prison.

The film’s methodical opening reel is similar to Audiard’s masterpiece as it fixes its gaze on Eric as he is transported to jail and is processed by the guards in a deliberately intimidating fashion designed to reinforce the power structure. Unlike Tahir Rahim’s Malick from A Prophet, however, Eric is already a veteran of the penal system, having been ‘starred up’ (transferred early) from a Young Offender Institution and makes it is first act to fashion a weapon for himself.

Like father, like son... Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) discovers son Eric (Jack O'Connell) is inside in Starred Up

Like father, like son… Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) discovers son Eric (Jack O’Connell) is inside in Starred Up

Although clearly intelligent, Eric is also a caged animal and acts impulsively, more often than not out of a sense of fear. He must also deal with the discovery that he’s locked up alongside his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a respected long-term convict, and forms a loose connection with the well-meaning Oliver (Rupert Friend), a therapist who wants a chance to help him.

Eric stands at a crossroads within the prison. His father represents a broken past that has led him to this place; the system, led by Sam Spruell’s loathsome Deputy Governor Hayes represents the walls that surround him in the present; while a possible future is represented by Oliver, who wants to help break the cycle of violence and self-destruction in the lives of Eric and other inmates.

Therapist Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend) tries to help inmate Eric (Jack O'Connell) in Starred Up

Therapist Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend) tries to help inmate Eric (Jack O’Connell) in Starred Up

The brutality of the prisoners is reflected by the guards and the authority that runs the facility. Jonathan Asser’s script (based on the writer’s own experience of having worked as a therapist in a prison) deftly lays bare the hypocrisy of a prison system that purports to want to rehabilitate its inmates, but in actuality sees the likes of Eric as nothing more than worthless scum not worth bothering with. Violence begets violence, from the bottom to the very top.

O’Connell gives a fearless performance as Eric. On his own in his cell, he betrays a pent-up look of fear that reminds us just how young he is, but around others adopts a puffed up arrogance that spills over into uncontrollable fury.

Convict Eric Love (Jack O'Connell) won't take things lying down in Starred Up

Convict Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) won’t take things lying down in Starred Up

Eric’s complicated relationship with his father is the heart of the film and both actors give it everything they’ve got. Eric initially cannot look Neville in the eye when they first encounter each other in the prison yard and the anger and disappointment felt by his father is palpable. Neville, whose impulse towards savagery is shared by Eric, is torn between looking out for his son and wanting to knock seven bells out of him, and it’s absorbing watching how one side slowly wins out over the other.

Needless to say the violence is shocking and visceral, but then it has to be when you consider the environment these people exist in.

Starred Up is as smart and uncompromising as it is ferocious. There’s a new daddy in town and this is it.