Director: Yann Demange
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris, Sam Reid, Charlie Murphy and David Wilmot
Running Time: 99 minutes
Release Date: October 10th
“You’re not even leaving the country.”
This is what Gary (Jack O’Connell) and his fellow officers are told when they are informed that they are being deployed to Belfast, just at the point, in 1971 as it’s title informs, when the city was entering the abyss. Of course such a statement ignores the complexity of The Troubles, and it is this lack of awareness that causes Gary to get separated from his unit when a routine trip to a nationalist area quickly escalates into a riot. Gary finds himself in a desperate struggle to survive, behind enemy lines in a city where those lines are never clear.
The films premise, a man spends a hellish night wandering the streets of a divided Belfast looking for a way to escape, will bring up comparisons to Carol Reed’s 1947 classic Odd Man Out. What are interesting about these two films are the depictions of Belfast itself and how the city had changed in just over 20 years. In Reed’s Belfast, we get a sense of an ordinary industrial town, albeit one that has dark and sinister undertone below its surface. In ’71 the darkness is its surface. Director Yann Demange shows us a Belfast where nihilism has taken over and those industrial streets have turned into war zones. Reed’s Belfast shows James Mason hopping into a packed tram, while burnt out buses are what the British soldiers see in Demange’s Belfast.
Demange and his scriptwriter Gregory Burke have done a tremendous job at creating such a tense atmosphere for the film. The key to this is that they have managed to find a balance between creating riveting set pieces–one example early in the film is a chase sequence as Gary runs from a group of IRA gunmen through the streets, back alleys and the walls of IRA safe houses–while placing them in a world that has a sense of reality.
What helps the film achieve this sense of reality is the fact that it never portrays its characters in a stereotypical Us vs. Them manner that often happens in war movies. Much of the characters are conflicted in what they believe. Betrayals are made; loyalties are divided to the point where even doing the right thing may have dire consequences.
While all these complications would usually have the side effect of making its lead character seem a bit simplistic by comparison, after all Gary’s main goal in the film is to return to his barracks, it never feels that way due to the fantastic performance by Jack O’Connell. As in this year’s Starred Up, O’Connell shows us exactly why he is being thought of as being one of the stars of the future. Completely engaging throughout, he manages to evoke sympathy from us purely through his expressions. Gary is in a hopeless situation, made worse by the fact he has no one to trust. Everyone in the city has or could have sinister reasons for finding Gary, from the young IRA gunmen who want him dead to the corrupt undercover British officers who want to silence him. Gary has to suppress his fear in order to have any chance to survive and O’Connell is brilliant at this while at the same time allowing us to have an insight on how terrified he really is.
It is this central performance, along with its sharp directing and pacing, that make ’71 such a compelling thriller that manages to deliver heart-pounding set pieces while at the same time never shying away from the grim effects of conflicts.