One of the main jobs for even the most by-the-numbers thriller is to take the audience along the same emotional trajectory as the protagonist, making us feel what they’re feeling and, often, only letting us know what they know. ’71, the latest project in Jack O’Connell’s 2014 tour de force, is by these requirements a fantastic thriller, and one that takes a relatively simple premise and wrings it for everything possible.
The protagonist we’re following here is Gary Hook (O’Connell), a British soldier who finds himself in the middle of a riot during his first patrol in Belfast. Separated from the rest after things take a sudden and violent turn, he spends the rest of the running time stumbling around town in search of safety. The trouble is, there’s no safety to be found, and he’s quickly caught in the middle of warring factions, double-crosses and a host of other dangers.
Introduced with a cold open, it’s immediately clear that ’71 isn’t a movie concerned with explaining the conflict with lengthy scenes of dialogue or even much in the way of character development for the various participants we meet. It’s more interested in showing the conflict in 1970s Belfast through the eyes of an outsider – as the majority of the film’s audience will also be – and taking this angle makes the viewing experience all the more fraught.
It’s often unbearably tense, and the film’s place as a legitimately entertaining thriller never actually lets you forget the real-world ramifications of the events that the action is based around. The first 30-minutes of ’71 are absolutely unbelievable, genuinely shocking and authentically visceral. During an early sequence that sets things in motion, our view is constantly obstructed so as to make the violence and action even more horrible for what isn’t seen, and it’s all the more effective for how early in the film it arrives.
It’s the kind of sequence after which you realise you’ve been holding your breath the whole time, and didn’t even realise. It’s so good that the film never quite reaches that level again, and this throws the pacing off slightly.
Later, there’s a small amount of time dedicated to luring us into a wholly false sense of security, which is promptly shattered before Hook is on the move again. There’s very little respite through the whole thing, but when there is time it’s spent filling us in on the story’s thematic scaffolding. It’s a conflict that is so ill-defined in the context of the film that we’re left as clueless as Gary for much of the running time, and this sparse scene-setting works in its favour.
Director Yann Demange comes from British television series such as Top Boy and Dead Set, and his film debut carries a lot of the same aesthetic qualities that make his work on TV so distinctive. As a film essentially about one man running to safety while being hunted by largely unseen forces, the frantic shaky-cam style works beautifully, and is complemented by O’Connell’s outstanding performance throughout.
Crucially when dealing with something as sensitive and fresh as this, the film doesn’t take sides. In fact, instead of lending redeeming qualities to each side of the conflict, it opts to make everyone as corrupt, misguided and needlessly violent as each other, with one man caught in the middle without necessarily knowing why.
As fantastic as the portrayal is, following Hook around is not unlike following a video game character – he has no time to really contemplate what’s happening, just that he needs to get out of the situation as soon as humanly possible. But still, the entertainment value of something this unrelentingly compelling doesn’t ever feel icky – with the resolution just as powerful and unflinching as when the troop first arrive in Belfast.
It’s widely accepted that Jack O’Connell is one to watch, and ’71 shows him off at his very best. It’s a film that, while hampered by a lack of clarity at some points, is as unblinking in its realism as it is dedicated to being a thoroughly entertaining example of its genre.
’71 is out in UK cinemas on the 10th October.
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