Yann Demange’s ’71 is a thriller set in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. It is an astoundingly tense film that uses its historical template to analyse the intricacies of conflict, but also wider themes of loyalty, trust and the corrupting nature of partisanship.
The narrative centres on Gary Hook, a young British – and English – soldier sent to Belfast as part of the control operation. Hook’s expectations of gentle workouts and banter with the locals are quickly shattered by a brutal, unstable environment where every shadow could be hiding an assailant; every bang could be a bullet with your name on it. He becomes separated from his patrol in a neighbourhood of enraged Irish Republicans baying for army blood; his efforts to return to his patrol that night take him deep into the heart of the combat where violence is the currency and nothing is safe.
Hellish is an inadequate term to convey the horror of the battlefield created by first time director Demange and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe. The latter has a talent for manipulating post-war British towns into settings for great drama – he also shot this year’s momentous Pride. This film is as threatening and vicious as that was heartwarming. There is a moment of explicit, merciless bloodshed early on, made all the more shocking because it happens in broad daylight; from that point it rises above its historical content and begins to terrify and hypnotise. Writer Gregory Burke creates an array of authentic characters, most with an allegiance but some without, all scrabbling around in the claustrophobic maze of the Belfast night. The core of the film is Hook’s continued survival, but our sympathies never fall either side of the divide; instead we pay witness to the awful deeds committed in the name of both republicanism and unionism. There is Gary’s senior officer Lt. Armitage, unprepared for the viciousness of the battle and at odds with intelligence operative Captain Browning. Their feud is mirrored on the other side by the insurgence of Paul Haggerty and Sean Bannon; members of this conflict are fighting not just against the other side but against each other too.
The touchstone that holds all this tragic madness together is the performance of Jack O’Connell in the main role. Many of my generation will have been familiar with O’Connell since the cheeky, angry unpredictability he brought to James Cook in Skins; it is a pleasure but not a surprise to see him progress as so many of the Skins cast have done. This is his second extraordinary performance of the year after he took the lead in David Mackenzie’s Starred Up. There he was all unbridled rage; here he demonstrates impressive range by playing Gary Hook with great control, common sense and humanity – it is through his desperate movements that we experience the devastating action. The two films make a great double-bill; and with the lead in Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut Unbroken coming soon, we will thankfully be seeing a lot more of O’Connell on our screens. He has a unique presence that, whatever the story, makes you want to keep watching.
The supporting cast are all very strong too. Killian Scott, another star in the making, brings a cold-blooded fury to rebel leader Quinn, while Barry Keoghan’s performance as the young, indoctrinated Bannon is chilling – his blank, emotionless face suggests a boy who is all too accustomed to such awful nights as this one. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian makes the connection to the Vietnam War film genre. The best of those films had a strong visual identity and memorable locations – these are provided here by the seeping streetlights and shadows creeping up every wall. The Divis Flats where much of the latter half plays out are a circular stage for the remorseless injustices of combat.
This might sound like a film that is not easy to watch, but anything made with this much talent and with such a gripping atmosphere is wonderful cinema. Go see it.