2014, 99mins, 15
Director: Yann Demange
Writer: Gregory Burke
Cast includes: Jack O'Connell, Sam Reid, Sean Harris, Paul Anderson, Charlie Murphy
UK Release Date: 10th October 2014
Northern Ireland’s internal issues during the latter half of the twentieth century have endured an uneasy relationship with the screen. Alan Clarke’s seminal short “Elephant” and Steve McQueen’s visceral feature debut "Hunger” advocate the conflict’s cinematic potential, but clunkers like last year’s “A Belfast Story” serve only to undermine both local history and good film-making. “’71” definitely belongs in the upper-tier of this limited pantheon, namely due to incredible authenticity. Yann Demange’s feature manages to articulate the aural and visual uneasiness that envelops a City at war with itself, dragging its desperate protagonist through a struggle that is chiefly human, not political. The essence of the Troubles is woven satisfactorily into the narrative, but “’71” is essentially an efficient chase movie with a strikingly believable outer shell.
Gary (Jack O’Connell) is a young soldier, drafted like many before him to serve in Belfast. Leaving behind familial ties, Gary is shocked by the divisions running through all aspects of the city’s culture, the palpable resentment breeding intense violence. Whilst undergoing a routine raid with his division, Gary finds himself separated, with an assortment of enemies on his tail. Some want him dead for what he represents, whilst others harbour a more devious motivation. With no knowledge of the city, and nobody to trust, Gary is left frightened and vulnerable, touring neighbourhoods consumed by hate.
Demange’s previous work has largely been televisual, but “’71” heralds the coming of a very cinematic film-maker. The recreation of Belfast is startlingly accurate (remarkable given the film shot almost entirely around Sheffield), comprising tight terraced housing, a maze of alleys and a population that emanate life. Even background artists sport impeccable accents, and the hostility evidenced in their dialogue and actions feels real. It’s laced with venom, with a sense of unsympathetic scorn for opposing civilians. Much credit must go to screenwriter Gregory Burke, who utilises a credible depth of native rhetoric, but Demange’s visual construction of the city and use of his eclectic cast make the strongest impression. As somebody born in the Belfast, I bring with me a certain inherent eye for specifics, and Demange meets each challenge with aplomb. “71’” is aesthetically convincing, and as a result the drama at its core becomes not only believable but heatedly genuine.
O’Connell has enjoyed a sterling year. A combination of high-profile exposure (the “300” sequel) and intimate character work (“Starred Up”) have made a strong case for sustained presence in the industry, his work often centred around his duel ability to meld macho with meek. His sturdy physical presence, angular features and gruff delivery ensure we buy him as formidable, but there’s a naivety O’Connell conjures which makes him entirely vulnerable. As his stranded soldier fumbles through firefights and detonations, his wounds both physical and emotional leave a mark. He’s tough enough to survive, but never cold enough to seem invincible or inhuman. That’s a difficult task for any performer, but O’Connell makes the game seem easy. Gary isn’t a hugely complex character (certainly nowhere close to the broken soul in “Starred Up”) but the young Brit’s innate qualities bring him confidently to life. The supporting faces are also worthy. Burke’s script is more concerned with plot and setting than character, so Demange has wisely caught a cast of underrated heavy-hitters. Sean Harris in particular, perfectly mirrors the uncaring and merciless mood of the time.
Thankfully “71’” is a historically reverent chase movie rather than a piece governed by political intent. Burke’s script avoids taking sides, instead dividing his characters between the few who process compassion and the majority who don’t. Nationalism vs. Unionism isn’t a factor. This should not only suit viewers associated with the conflict, but also those to whom it means little. “’71” doesn’t concern itself with the context of the strife; instead it mourns a sour era in Ireland’s past through brutally depicted street warfare. In the world of “’71” children have lost their innocence, civilians have surrendered their social freedoms and a young man is forced through a night of torment. “’71” weeps not for independence nor promotes a union, instead the picture honours the many innocents ruined forever by the country’s continued unrest.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014