Part of the 2014 BFI London Film Festival
The sound of boxing over black – the thuds, the grunts, the heavy breathing – sounds very much like war. When ’71 opens, however, our young squaddie, Gary Hook (Starred Up’s Jack O’Connell) has not been deployed to Northern Ireland, but is participating in an officially mandated bout. The reality of factionalism and in-fighting is one that runs through Yann Demange’s taut, 99-minute thriller. His first day out in Belfast, Gary finds himself faced by burnt-out, and still-burning, vehicles; he and the rest of the unit have various excreta thrown at them by pissed-off kids. An everyday raid quickly turns to tragedy and Gary finds himself lost, alone, and in hostile territory.
’71 marks Demange’s directorial debut, and, with a script by Scottish playwright Gregory Burke – his 2006 play Black Watch explored similar themes – it is a supremely confident one. Full of vérité tracking and claustrophobic close-ups, the film puts you in the thick of the action. O’Connell’s muscular, mostly wordless performance captures Hook’s fear and uncertainty in every inflection as he struggles to make his way back to the barracks, aided by a cast of strangers, nearly all of whom have their own agendas at play.
There’s gangly plain-clothes CO Captain Browning (Sean Harris) – whose connections with the IRA go deeper than anyone suspects – his gruffly foreboding Sergeant (Paul Anderson), and the well-meaning but inexperienced Lieutenant Armitage (The Riot Club’s Sam Reid), who simply wants to bring Hook home. There’s also a diverse Irish cast, including Richard Dormer, Killian Scott, David Wilmot, Charlie Murphy, and Barry Keoghan, though most of their characters are defined purely by their desire to either protect or kill the protagonist.
’71 loses momentum, though, whenever Hook’s off-screen; the additional plot-lines complicate without necessarily building tension, though a brief cutaway to two incompetent terrorists at the back of a bar leads to what it perhaps the cinematic “Oh, s**t!” moment of the year so far. The film captures the tone and texture of the Troubles on a microcosmic level – callow youths with guns chasing – without the scale and intimacy of, say, Bloody Sunday; though Paul Greengrass would seem to top the list of Demange’s influences. In short, the plot sometimes gets in the way of the experience. A film focusing purely on Gary Hook in situ, as it were, would have meant a very different ‘71, of course; but perhaps a slightly more effective proposition for it.