’71 takes place over a single night in the life of a young British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) accidentally abandoned by his unit following a riot on the streets of Belfast in 1971. Unable to tell friend from foe, and increasingly wary of his own comrades, he must survive the night alone and find his way to safety through a disorientating, alien and deadly landscape
Most of you by now will be no stranger to Jack O’Connell, who as I mentioned in my review of Unbroken has been giving excellent performance after excellent performance (Eden Lake & Starred Up), and as a result is setting expectations incredibly high for his future. It would make sense then, why Yann Demange’s directorial debut would look to include such a strong actor in the lead, but what becomes apparent very quickly is how the film is so much more than this one man. Unlike Unbroken, which was tiresome and Oscar hungry, this is an understated and compelling thriller of which Jack O’Connell seemingly blends into, which is a credit to himself but those around him too.
While it does shed some light on a slither of a personal back story for Gary Hook (O’Connell), this film is largely a hunter vs hunted scenario where the lack of depth in terms of historical setup, is counteracted by the action and events happening in the present day. This film does not warrant a motive, it does not need any more understanding than what has been provided. We follow a young solider in a scary situation, who wants to do his job but make sure he actually makes it to tomorrow – this is the basic understanding you need, and this simple premise is made into something so much more by Gregory Burke’s great script.
Similarly, for those unfamiliar with the situation in Belfast at this time, do not worry. ’71 is set in the conflict, but does not try to explain or focus in on the conflict itself. You do not need to know anything about it to fully understand it, the events that take place have very little context to them other than simply being a hostile situation that many do not want to be a part of. Perhaps that is what gives ‘71 its unnerving tone, despite being so close to the UK mainland, it almost seems foreign to the army largely due to the created war-zone they plan to mediate. The unexplained violence spills out on to the streets in a city that these kids in the army struggle to comprehend, and as the ones in charge underestimate and under-prepare, the fear leaks out of the screen and into the viewer in an inevitable nervousness.
For all its vagueness, the plot does become slightly confusing. Spotting who is undercover, who we haven’t seen before and who isn’t undercover is no easy task at first; in a sea of moustaches and yelling, it’s hard to follow. I understand that Hook isn’t supposed to know who to trust, but we the viewer must have a bit more of an insight? Perhaps it was handled that way on purpose, because in light of the confusion arising from various identities, much like the fear inhabiting our senses for the most part, this is only heightened by confusion and wariness.
It’s these emotions we come to experience that make the film such a success. Intense action is sporadically thrown into the fray, as we dip in and out of Hook’s head with muted sounds as the result of explosions, the camera steadily running behind him, combined with a point of view / first person style viewpoint as he peers round every corner. We move at the pace of O’Connell, we experience what O’Connell experiences, and much like an unpredictable warzone, our soldier and by extension, we the audience, are caught completely off guard despite being kept on edge throughout.
As I mentioned before, this film is so much more than O’Connell. The production (Angus Lamont / Robin Gutch) and cinematography (Tat Radcliffe) are second to none. You feel like you are in a warzone; a mazey, unrecognisable and unforgiving warzone that used to be a quiet neighbourhood. The smoke is pouring from all angles, the fire rages from burning cars and bombed buildings, then rain pours down by the bucket adding to the miserable challenge ahead of our protagonist. These are emphasised by long painstaking shots, matched only by the look of desperation and vulnerability of O’Connell which goes to add volumes to the films claustrophobic effect.
’71 is not a glamourous, funny, John Wick style of film, nor is it a sort of Belfast Rambo. This is a different breed of film, embedded in realism that makes the heart race, owed largely to an intelligent and riveting script, excellent supporting cast and simple storytelling that not only looks and sounds good.
This is a thriller deserving of the word, it thrills, it is bleak… it is brilliant.
’71 is available on Googleplay, Amazon & iTunes.