Jack O’Connell possesses about him the kind of gritty, British masculinity that’s rarely been around the silver screen for a while. His is a refreshing presence, and also very impressive how he manages to convey a deep-seated vulnerability whilst maintaining intensity. He’s definitely matured since his days as the violent, womanising Cook on Channel 4’s Skins – and now, in Yann Demange’s blistering ’71, O’Connell plays Gary Hook, a young soldier whose first deployment ends in disaster as he is marooned in the middle of Belfast during the Troubles after a street riot. His performance here is a testament that he’s well on the way to becoming a hugely talented actor.[divider]+[/divider]
Demange’s direction is outstanding considering this is his debut feature, and he keeps the tension searing at a high-octane level throughout.[divider]+[/divider]
’71‘s central concern is about with two opposing “sides” (Protestants and Catholics, naturally) in the Troubles, and the scenes are suitably murky, with a focus on the mistakes and deeds of individuals rather than a collective force. Within this predicament is O’Connell’s abandonment in the middle of Belfast, where there is no clear distinguishment between friend or foe – from the sympathetic Catholic doctor who helps him out, to the callous Protestant collaborators who seem happy to let him die. Demange’s direction is outstanding considering this is his debut feature, and he keeps the tension searing at a high-octane level throughout. The pace rarely lets off for a second, as O’Connell’s character tries to make his way through the deadly night, picking up unlikely allies and even unlikelier foes. The dark, smokey visuals and fast, queasy cinematography add a sense of brutality.
Everyone is involved in this nightmare, down to little boys with Molotov cocktails. Geoffrey Burke’s script fills the screen with a thousand interesting characters, and leaves none of them without interesting dialogue or background. This highly personalises what would otherwise be a rather aimless action thriller, and really elevates the whole film to another level, as well as avoiding turning it into yet another political debate. This is about the people, through the eyes of Gary Hook.
If done differently, this carefully orchestrated plethora of supporting characters could feel very artificial – there is almost one to represent every single point of view, no more, no less. But Demange’s powerful thrills and the excellent naturalistic performances of the cast don’t let you dwell on this flaw long enough to notice it, they keep you well caught up in the moment. In fact, the whole film resembles a brilliantly constructed succession of moments. The character development is just enough to satisfy, the politics are just interesting enough but not too much so to detract from the action, and most importantly, the said action pieces are phenomenally gripping and moving. This is a film that won’t leave you pondering over its nuances for days, but rather shell-shocked in the cinema as if you’d just been hit with a bomb yourself. A hard, well-struck, physical and moral punch of a film.