Yann Demange, director of TV's Dead Set and Top Boy, sustains his flair for gripping action with this gritty and authentic big screen debut.
'71 depicts what is ostensibly the first real stirrings of British armed forces deployment in light of the sectarian violence that would come to be known as the Troubles. Jack O'Connell stars as Pte Gary Hook, a Derbyshire lad whom writer Gregory Burke's script seems to implicitly suggest finds life in the Paras as an opportunity to become part of a surrogate family. Shipped to N.Ireland for his first tour and requested to provide support during an RUC raid, Hook and his unit are immediately thrown in at the deep end when things quickly sour and turn violently ugly. Witnessing his friend's assassination by an IRA gunman, Hook narrowly escapes with his own life whilst the remainder of his unit retreat without him. The rest of the film concerns itself with Hook's survival instincts as he scurries and shelters in the rabbit warren streets of Belfast, increasingly desperate and unable to tell friend from foe.
It comes as no surprise to say that O'Connell is brilliant in this and, coming off the back of a truly impressive performance in the prison drama Starred Up, it really makes him one to watch. There's a wonderful underplaying on display here that fits the action perfectly. Whilst this is essentially a traditional 'behind enemy lines' feature, O'Connell, Demange and Burke wish to make it clear that Hook is not a Hollywood action hero. He is, as his commanding officer remarks to him at one stage in the film, 'lucky'; knowing just enough of his training and having just enough stamina to keep on running. When confronted with the enemy, Hook can and will make mistakes that almost cost him dearly, and when violence occurs it is dealt with in a matter of fact manner that is at once both non gratuitous and shocking in its authenticity. It's also interesting how matter of fact the film is in depicting Hook to the audience - he isn't a character whom we truly get to know or understand what makes him tick, rather he's just the person who is ostensibly our guide. He is essentially the person unlucky enough to have found himself in this situation, and nothing more. This no heroics stance works incredibly well for the approach the film wishes to take, and its left to us to piece together Hook's background, his motivation for joining up, his links to the children's home and the young child he visits there and lastly, how his experiences have affected him.
There's also a strong supporting cast including the now familiar creeping and creepy menace that is Sean Harris, sporting a naff 70s mullet and moustache as a cold blooded undercover British officer, Paul Anderson as his Sergeant, Richard Dormer and Charlie Murphy as a Good Samaritan father and daughter, Barry Keoghan as a near silent yet always striking presence whose blank features and gimlet staring eyes still manage to express much inner conflict, and lastly, child actor Corey McKinley.
Uniquely for a film about the Troubles '71 doesn't concern itself with hand wringing explorations of guilt or piety to the issue at hand. Instead it concerns itself with the action and a conspiracy element of 'who can you trust?' drama that is usually to be found in the spy or thriller genre. This more detached style certainly plays to Demange's strengths, allowing him to concentrate on the nail biting taut chase sequences and moments of edge-of-the-seat suspense rather than the why's and wherefore's. That's not to say this is a dumbed down piece because it still provides a social commentary and often, in the most unexpected ways - witness O'Connell trying to explain to Belfast girl Murphy why Nottingham and Derby don't get on - and it does indeed still pay to know your modern history (one woman in the cinema tonight hadn't a clue for example, making two staggering comments; "Why's he helping him?" and "Is this set in the past then?" which suggests a staggering inability to understand not only sectarian issues but also on the film's title) but it is the almost in-the-moment, fly on the wall presentation of the unfolding events that take precedence and, like the best war correspondence, are immensely absorbing to witness.
It does have some minor flaws however. There are some moments of plot expedient character stupidity and I'm not totally convinced by a certain key dramatic point near the end, finding it almost straying into the sentimental Hollywood territory it had previously seemed determined to avoid. I also found the ineffectual CO played by Sam Reid something of a tired cliche (especially when the film went so delightfully against the stereotype by casting Babou Ceesay as the foul mouthed yet secretly kindly Corporal) But this remains a visceral and engaging production of great immediacy.