Director: Yann Demange
Major Players: Jack O’Connell, Sam Reid, Sean Harris
Out Of Five: 3.5
The past few months has seen British film makers mining a rich seam of 80s nostalgia – Pride, Soul Boys Of The Western World – but ’71, one of the first films at this year’s London Film Festival takes us further back to the 70s. And nostalgic it most certainly ain’t.
Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is a squaddie fresh out of training and his unit’s first posting is to the violent streets of Belfast. Their first assignment, searching a house for firearms, is a disaster: they’re attacked by a crowd and Hook finds himself separated from his unit, on the run in hostile territory and trying to find his way back to his barracks. First he’s helped by some loyalists, then by a man and his daughter who live in the Divvis Flats. And then the undercover soldiers, who operate out of his barracks, become involved.
This is very much Hook’s story and he cuts a solitary figure right from the outset. He visits his little brother in a children’s home – he appears to have no other family – and his attitude to the people at the home points to him being a product of the same system. Yet, despite his preference for solitude, he thrives on the physicality of his army training and the camaraderie he finds there. But this is all blown apart when he finds himself alone on the Belfast streets, which are fraught with danger.
The film is set in 1971, in the early days of what was known as The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The conflict lasted for 30 years during which over 3,600 people were killed from both sides and the security forces. Yet, despite being comparatively recent history, its attitudes and setting make it feel significantly older.
First time director Yann Demange comes to ’71 with a list of TV successes, including Secret Diary Of A Call Girl, under his belt. From the film, the riot scene especially, you’d expect a documentary or two to be there as well, but surprisingly there’s not. That riot scene has a real feeling of authenticity about it. It’s genuinely frightening, as is the look of terror in the eyes of the soldiers who are barely out of their teens. The noise of the dustbin lids pounded on the pavements, the smoke from the blazing cars pock-marking the city’s streets, the dusty haze from the rocks hurled at the troops – they all authentically re-create a sadly all-too-frequent occurrence on the streets of Belfast at the time. It’s an impressive sequence, as is the hand held camera work when the injured Hook is running through the streets. Blurred and jerky, it’s what a wounded man would see when he’s running for his life.
When he’s first on the run, Hook runs into a young loyalist boy, not much older than his little brother and strikingly similar in looks. The streetwise lad helps finds him some shelter but is the victim of a bombing which, in theory, should have done for the soldier as well. He has a knack of being in the right place at the right time. Then he’s rescued from the streets by a man and his daughter: the father turns out to be an ex-medic so can help in a practical way. But the fact that they live in the Divvis Flats means more danger, especially when the local republican gunmen work out the soldier has gone to ground there.
The flats may be on a higher level that the streets below, but they’re just as threatening – a concrete maze full of right angles and who-knows-what around every corner. The sequences here should be the ones most fraught with tension, but they’re undermined by the plot’s biggest weakness, the involvement of the undercover officers. They’ve infiltrated both sides of the local community, know everybody and are double crossing everybody left, right and centre. Hook doesn’t have a clue who’s on his side – and neither do we. We’re struggling to keep up with who is who and who they’re supporting, which distracts us from the action in hand. The one thing we do know for certain is that Sean (Barry Keoghan), the teenager we see early in the film working with the republican gunmen, is going to help save the rookie soldier. Why? Because when we first see him the camera lingers on him just a split second too long and gives the game away.
The idea behind ’71 is a simple one – it’s a chase movie. But one that’s put in a dramatic setting that, for the older members of the audience at least, still resounds today. For younger cinemagoers, it’ll be closer to a piece of modern history. Despite its weaknesses, it’s a setting that brings more than enough inherent drama and tension to the story and it’s helped by some strong performances, especially from O’Connell as the soldier on the run. Yet again, he’s taken on a physically and emotionally demanding role – think Starred Up earlier this year – and he’s really marking himself out as a talent to be reckoned with. And, from the look of ’71, director Yann Demange isn’t far behind him.
’71 is screened at the London Film Festival on Thursday, 9 October and Friday, 10 October. It is also released around the UK on Friday, 10 October.