‘71

March 21, 2015
Jack O'Connell in ''71' (2014)
Jack O'Connell in ''71' (2014)

Yann Demange’s ’71, begins with two soldiers in boxing gloves beating each other to a pulp. This proves to be a relatively gentle opening for a relentless, heart-in-mouth thriller set in Belfast during the period euphemistically known as “The Troubles”.

The movie follows a young British soldier, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), who finds himself trapped behind the lines of murderous IRA militants in the dark, shabby streets of a war-torn city. It is the story of a pursuit conducted in fits and starts, as Hook struggles to keep one step ahead of his would-be assassins. Because he has seen a little too much of a covert operation, the British undercover agents who should be his rescuers, led by the rat-faced Captain Browning (Sean Harris), are also intent on his demise.

In this assured debut as a feature director, Demange paints a bleak picture of the British peace-keeping mission in Northern Ireland. While naïve recruits are mobbed – and murdered – by angry Catholics, the local police bash suspects at will. Children snarl from behind fences and pelt the invaders with rocks or bags of piss. The secret service seems more concerned with fomenting violence than keeping a lid on the conflict.

Belfast is as lawless as Dodge City during the days of the wild west, and far more dangerous, with disputes being settled with bombs and high-powered guns. Death is the penalty for anyone who trepasses the lines separating Catholics from Protestants.

Hook’s desperation to survive is so palpable it will have viewers clenching their fists. This is not the standard Hollywood pursuit, with dramatic music and stagey close shaves. Hook goes racing down a narrow alleyway, his terror recorded by a hand-held camera that bounces and swerves alarmingly, making the viewer feel as if he or she is the pursuer, struggling to keep up. Hook is no hero, simply a working-class lad from Derbyshire who doesn’t even have a religious denomination. As darkness falls, the shadows are a both promise of safety and a hiding place for potential killers.

What makes the story so gripping are those pauses when the tension is allowed to gel and play on audience nerves. We have learned just enough of Hook to know he has a younger brother in a home, who depends on him. We think of the brother when Hook is led out the maze of streets by a small, foul-mouthed boy, whose grief at the loss of a father has turned to a ferocious anger. In this world the soldier is a political ingenue, capable only of falling back on basic human instincts that are assaulted at every turn.

In this claustrophobic place it requires a streak of madness to sustain the rage that fuels the violence. Enemies may suddenly change into friends, or vice versa. ’71 compresses a huge amount of tension into a mere 100 minutes, making it a long, long journey to the end of this particular night.

‘71
Directed by Yann Demange,
Written by Gregory Burke,
Starring Jack O’Connell, Paul Anderson, Sean Harris, Barry Keoghan, Martin McCann, Richard Dormer, Charlie Murphy, Sam Reid, Killian Scott, David Wilmot, Corey McKinley
UK, rated MA 15+, 99 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 21st March, 2015.