Thursday, 19 March 2015


eOne Films

War film or thriller? Yann Demange's debut feature (from a lean screenplay by Gregory Burke) could conceivably be called both. Set on the streets of Belfast during The Troubles, the mise-en-scene is very much war zone: riot gear, angry mobs and burnt-out cars. But when a British soldier gets left behind enemy lines, '71 quickly becomes a white-knuckle ride and we're with Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) every bloody step of the way as he tries to make it back to base undetected.

But it's not just the locals whom Hook has to avoid. Having inadvertently stumbled upon a fraternization plot with the local IRA by undercover British operatives (led by the severe-faced Sean Harris), it soon becomes apparent that our man on the ground will have to evade friend as well as foe if he's to make it back to the barracks alive.

Stabbings, gun shots and even a bomb blast all befall the put upon Hook, whose survival is as much to do with his training -- the film's opening scenes telegraphing the obstacle course he'll later encounter -- as it is the kindness of strangers. A plucky young lad (an impressive Corey McKinley) with ties to a Loyalist leader becomes his first ally before an explosive turn of events places him in the care of a father (Richard Dormer) and daughter (Charlie Murphy) (the latter with ties to a hotheaded IRA foot soldier, Sean Bannon (Barry Keoghan) with a trigger finger and itching to break away from his elders).

O'Connell, no stranger to physically bruising performances having played the martyred P.O.W. Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken ('71 was actually completed before that film), here plays a different kind of hero. Not sainted or impossibly indestructible, O'Connell's soldier feels every bit of pain inflicted upon his body, he even cries on more than one occasion. Die Hard in Belfast Demange's film is not. Hook has one hell of a night, and you're along for the nerve-racking ride.

Aiding in that effect is Tat Radcliffe's handheld cinematography*. It's enough to make Paul Greengrass envious while giving some audience members (and certain film critics) motion sickness, but it serves a purpose: putting the audience in the moment and in the rattled frame of mind of the protagonist. You'll leave '71 feeling almost as battered, if not as bruised, as Hook. (*Radcliffe apparently shot the night scenes on digital and the day scenes on film.)

'71 proves well worth the almost 14-month wait following its Berlin Film Festival premiere back in 2014; a wait presumably to leverage Jack O'Connell's role in the much more high profile Unbroken. A nerve-jangler bound to give your armrest -- or your partner's arm -- a workout, '71 not only confirms O'Connell's arrival as an actor, but announces the arrival of a talented filmmaker in Yann Demange.

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