Watching ’71, it’s easy to see why Jack O’Connell caused so much heat in 2014. Seeing what he’s able to do here, in Yann Demange’s story of a young soldier abandoned in the violent streets of Belfast in 1971, it makes Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, where he also plays the lead, even more of a disappointment. As incredible as O’Connell is, however, ’71 is much more than just a stage for the on-the-rise actor, and the film is a gripping, so-tense-you-can-hardly-bear-it story of survival and the horrors of war. It also marks Demange, who makes his feature directorial debut after working extensively in television, as a talent to watch right along side his star.
Gary Hook (O’Connell) is a young soldier, who, after his unit finishes their basic training, is sent to the streets of Belfast during the “Troubles,” where Catholics and Protestants, neighbors, were killing each other wholesale in the streets. Under the command of a green lieutenant, the soldiers get in over their heads as they aid in a routine home search, and Gary and his best friend are accidentally left behind in the chaos. When the other soldier is coldly executed in front of him, Gary is hunted through the streets as he tries to find his way back to the barracks.
What follows is part war picture, part heroic quest as Gary evades potential killers, tries to figure out who to trust, and navigates the hazy, unfamiliar, almost dreamlike streets of nighttime Belfast. Gary is lost, disoriented by moments of stunning violence, drifting through this conflict he neither understands nor has any real stake in. He’s not some hero, bravely battling for a cause, he’s a scared kid trapped in a fucked up situation he can’t escape, and it only gets worse the deeper he goes.
The action is both realistic and heavily metaphorical, both about this specific moment in history and so much more: war, idealism, corruption, among others. As transformative and world-altering as this night is, with lives crushed and lost and changed forever, you walk away with the feeling that this is just a night, that this could be any night in Belfast, and that tomorrow, the exact same thing could happen. It may not be Gary, but it’s bound to be someone.
’71 features a number of subplots. It explores the schisms in the IRA, a group of undercover operatives with sweet ‘70s mop tops and mustaches sowing the seeds of discontent between rival groups, and Gary’s fellow soldiers searching for their comrade. Much of the conflict in these digressions comes down to generation gaps, regardless of the specific group. The older, more experience factions clash with the inexperienced, impatient, impetuous youth.
As some of these threads unravel in the middle, as the various sides collude and conflict with one another, ’71 loses a bit of focus. Most of these asides are handled well and ultimately woven together, though a few, especially one about a good, smart kid who essentially falls in with the wrong crowd and heads down a dark path, are forced and more tangential. You understand the impulse, it gives another angle to the ever-escalating battle, but it is never fully developed.
This is a relatively minor complaint, however, and the only real misstep is that scenes where Gary visits his young brother bookend the movie. You see what Demange and the script from Gregory Burke are trying to do—they’re orphans and the brother is in the same facility where Gary grew up, it shows where he came from, and, ostensibly, what he’s fighting to stay alive for. This also connects thematically with a period where a brash young kid guides Gary to safety through the hazards of Belfast, but the brother is a largely unnecessary emotional shortcut as the film makes its points eloquently in other ways. Frankly, until the tacked on, extra few minutes of the epilogue, by the end you forgot about the brother completely. Still, aside from extending the run time a few minutes, is a miniscule hiccup in an otherwise excellent film.
Tackling a conflict like this, giving it a human face, and painting the subtle complexity with such a deft touch, is an accomplishment for anyone, let alone a first time director (at least the first time he’s worked in this format). Demange carries this off, aided by a fearless performance from O’Connell, and the result is moving, tense, and powerful, as well as both personal and universal. ’71 immerses you in a brutal world where just talking to the wrong person or being seen in the wrong place can get you killed, placing you in the heart of the action with verite style camera work, and never pulls punches as it explores the deeper truths in play in this very human story. [Grade: A-]