It’s 1971. Fresh out of army training, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is given Belfast as his first tour. During what is supposed to be a routine search of a largely Republican neighbourhood, Hook is left stranded by his naïve Lieutenant. Alone and wounded, Hook has to somehow survive and find his way back to the safety of the barracks.
Right from the off, you know where ’71 is going: shots of the squad going through tough-as-hell training; being briefed on their operation, where The Powers That Be describe Belfast as “Just another part of the UK;” the troops nervously walking along terraced streets. What sets director Yaan Demange’s first feature film apart from most heart-pounding thrillers is just how unflinchingly violent and visceral it is. This is a dirt-under-its-chipped-fingernails depiction of The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Shot largely using handheld cameras (with sometimes uncomfortably close close-ups), Anthony Radcliffe’s cinematography makes you feel like you’re watching a documentary, creating an agonising amount of tension. The sound design is also impressively handled; you will jump whilst watching ’71. Explosions, gunshots, knives sinking into flesh, they all follow moments of calm silence, all sounding like they’re happening right in front of you.
Darling of British film and TV right now, Jack O’Connell (Eden Lake, Skins, Starred Up) has virtually no dialogue in ’71, instead we watch him hesitate as he is given orders, cower in dark alleyways, or psych himself up, knowing the only way out is to kill a Provisional who’s got him cornered. O’Connell has the task of carrying the film, and he does an outstanding job. You forget you’re watching an actor and instead end up completely immersed, convinced you’re seeing a terrified, ordinary young man doing all he can to stay alive.
Sean Harris has made a career out of playing murky, complex roles, explaining his character with a glance or an expression, rather than reams of dialogue (Channel 4’s Red Riding and Southcliffe), doing the same here as the captain of a group of undercover soldiers, trying to flare up the hostility between the old-guard IRA and the radical Provisionals. As the quietly simmering Sandy Browning, Harris’s scowls are possibly more frightening than the Provisionals who stalk Hook. Browning has his own corrupt agenda; he works for the British army, but he’s not on anyone’s side.
Sam Reid (The Railway Man, The Riot Club) is given the Hopeless Man in Charge role as Lieutenant Armitage, but Reid manages to make Armitage more than just a war film cliché. Armitage is a kind man, who makes all the wrong choices. He doesn’t want his men in riot gear, as he wants the officers to look approachable; a decision he soon ends up regretting when he walks Belfast’s streets. Armitage is distraught when he realises he left one of his men behind, doing everything in his power to get Hook back, only to be obstructed by his superior, Browning.
A special mention has to go to Corey McKinley as a Loyalist child who comes to Hook’s aid. McKinley is a cynical old man trapped in a young boy’s body, lightening the mood with his constant swearing. Both O’Connell and McKinnley are terrific, but McKinley runs away with it whenever the two actors are onscreen together.
The only criticism you could have with ’71 is that it doesn’t delve too deeply into The Troubles. With the exception of O’Connell and Reid, the English are made out to be callous and violent, making more enemies instead of keeping the peace, but that’s as much insight as you get into the height of the Northern Ireland conflict. Demange uses Belfast as the location for a homage to John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 and that’s it.
’71 is one of this year’s best British films. Very few thrillers manage to turn audiences into emotional wrecks, yet Demange handles the onslaught of action like he’s already one of cinema’s greats, throwing you head first into the frightening world that was early seventies Belfast. You’re right there with O’Connell as he’s chased, shot at, or hiding. You absolutely want him to make it back alive.
4 out of 5