Directed by Yann Demange
Starring Jack O’Connell, Sam Reid, Paul Anderson, Sean Harris, Charlie Murphy, Sam Hazeldine, Killian Scott, Barry Keoghan, Corey McKinley
A young and disoriented British soldier is accidentally abandoned by his unit following a riot on the deadly streets of Belfast in 1971.
Earlier this year, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla was criticised for many reasons, one of which was that its lead character was “Captain Coincidence”. No matter where he was, the monsters were always there. The same can be said for ’71, a brilliant thriller from debut filmmaker Yann Demange, who turns quite a contrived and forced situation-style plot into a tense vice-like grip that won’t let go easily.
Set during the Catholic and Protestant street wars in Belfast in 1971, Jack O’Connell plays soldier Gary Hook, a simple Yorkshire lad who is separated from his team when they are attacked by angry villagers. Lost and confused, Gary must try and make it back to the barracks while trying not to be killed by a group of teenagers who are taking the war into their own hands.
’71 is an incredibly taut movie that rarely lets up on its tension-riddled plot as this young lad walks through war-torn streets of a city that doesn’t want him. With shades of The Warriors and Escape From New York, ’71 always has a foreboding sense of danger round every corner which really puts you on edge from start to end, though it never reaches the greatness of those mentioned. O’Connell gives a superb and genuine performance and tells you everything you need to know about his plight without using too much dialogue. However despite actually being born in Derby, O’Connell’s Derbyshire accent feels very forced and often resorts to “aye up”s and “our kid”s just to remind you of his home roots. The rest of the cast all do a sterling job, even if the majority of them are just set decoration around O’Connell and his journey home. Special mention however needs to be given to the young Corey McKinley who gives a scene-stealing laugh-out-loud performance as a loud and foul mouthed child who helps Gary back to the pub.
Gregory Burke’s script, while flawed, never over-dramatises the horrors of Belfast in the early 70s and puts all of the focus on Gary and his difficult night on the tiles, rather than making any political or social statements. Yann Demange never lets the largeness of the topic overwhelm him and he directs and presents these troubled times in our history with dignity, never glorying the very real-looking violence on screen. The initial riot scene in which Gary is separated from his troop is masterfully directed and beautifully shot with very clever camera shots and edits. The grimy look of the town isn’t used as a contrast to Gary’s life outside of this horror, nor is it used to further the drama of the night – instead it’s just a reality of what this period in our nation’s history was like.
Problems with the movie however arise from Burke’s script which just feels all too convenient. Every person Hook runs into just so happens to be integral to moving the plot forward and he often becomes a cog in the wheel of motion as opposed to the driving force. The script also unnecessarily adds in a subplot of “army corruption” which has not only been done to death in other movies, but was also tackled much better in Camp X-Ray which is also being shown at the London Film Festival. As well as this, Yann Demange can often let scenes of tension run for too long which in turns removes all drama from the scene. You may have been on the edge of your seat, but by the time the scene comes to its inevitable end, you’ll be back in an upright position.
But even with these tiny faltering snags, ’71 is still a brilliant movie which will have your heart racing from start to end. Jack O’Connell is phenomenal and Yann Demange’s direction, while off at times, is fantastic. The script has a few issues with dramatic conveniences which should have been addressed in earlier drafts, but the end product manages to come out as something to behold. Tense, gripping and truly emotional, ’71 is absolutely fantastic.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Luke Owen is the Deputy Editor of Flickering Myth and the host of the Flickering Myth Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @LukeWritesStuff.