[This is a re-post of my review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. ’71 opens today in limited release.]
It’s incredibly exciting to watch emerging talent in movies. It usually comes in a film that’s completely flying under the radar, you manage to catch it, and then you reach that wonderful position where you get to champion artists. For a film critic, that feeling is the best, and Yann Demange’s ’71 is a film worth cheering for. The movie itself is actually grim and intense, but that’s because it’s so damn effective thanks to Demange’s brilliant direction, Gregory Burke’s script, Tat Radcliffe’s cinematography, and Chris Wyatt’s editing. And at the center is Jack O’Connell, who proves that his past success was no fluke. He’s the real deal in a movie that’s too daring for Hollywood and all the better for it.
Private Gary Hook (O’Connell) is a soldier sent into Belfast in 1971. His unit has been charged with a routine search operation, and his inexperienced commanding officer believes that it’s better for the soldiers to go in without riot gear in order to help ease tensions with the Catholic nationalists. Unfortunately, the people of Belfast are in no mood to keep the peace, so matters rapidly escalate, and the unit is forced to retreat, but Hook is left behind. After managing to escape from a couple of nationalist soldiers, he must find his way back to safety. However, he’s being hunted not only by the nationalists, but also a nefarious British espionage group lead by Captain Sandy Browning (Sean Harris).
There are moments in ’71 where it’s a little difficult to follow the various machinations of the characters. There is a bit of quick exposition where a C.O. explains the neighborhood, the Protestant loyalists, and the Catholic nationalists, but the biggest takeaway is “The Divis Flats is where you don’t want to go because it’s an IRA stronghold.” We can guess the movie will probably be headed into the Divis Flats. The plot becomes more complicated when Browning’s small team is brought into play, so it takes a while to untangle their overall plans and how Hook is a threat.
Thankfully, the movie is quick enough to run past these minor missteps to keep up not only as a thrilling action film, but also a striking drama. ’71 is a lively mix of survival, intrigue, and human drama. The early foot chase between Hook and pursuers is exhilarating because even though we know our protagonist isn’t going to be killed so early in the picture, Demange gives us an energetic run through the warrens and abandoned buildings of Belfast. It’s a rare instance where the director goes handheld and yet always keeps the geography and framing intact.
The remarkable cinematography extends far past the action scenes as Demange and Radcliffe perfectly measure the use of stability and lighting in their shots. Rather than rocking the camera around to convey verisimilitude, Demange plays to the scene. When we’re in a room with Browning, the camera mirrors his personality by being calm, collected, but also uneasy. We’re in a room with a snake, and we don’t want to make any sudden movements. But when we’re with Hook, the danger is always present and there’s no reprieve.
Demange keeps the measured tone with Wyatt’s editing. The movie always matches the intensity of the scene, and while a lesser director might try to build tension with constant cutting, Demange always hits with proportional force. There are some striking unbroken takes in ’71, and they don’t feel showy because we’ve become so absorbed in the action that the movie now holds us subconsciously. We’re all trapped inside the powder keg.
The conditions are so tense over who will reach Hook first, and yet we hardly know anything about him, which counter-intuitively makes sense for the character and the story. No one who’s after Hook knows anything about substantive about who he is as a person. To the nationalists, he’s a symbol; to Browning, he’s a liability; and to the loyalists, he’s just a person who needs help. As viewers, all we know about Hook is that he’s a fresh recruit and he loves his kid brother. Thanks to Demange’s directing and O’Connell’s performance, that’s more than enough.
I was very impressed with O’Connell when I saw him in Starred Up last year, and his performance in ’71 is even more phenomenal. Hook has surprisingly few lines of dialogue, and when he does speak, it’s not in grand statements or cutting one-liners. A large part of the performance is playing to the honesty of the moment and showing Hook’s fear and confusion. He’s behind enemy lines, and because Demange and O’Connell are holding true to the reality of the situation, we feel protective of Hook even though we barely know anything about him.
Taken simply on its own merits, ’71 is a great film. It’s gripping, thoughtful, and well told. But it’s also a showcase of tremendous talent from the participants. If Demange continues to display this level of ability and wisely chooses his projects, he could easily be the next Paul Greengrass. I hope he keeps his crew with him because they’ve done an amazing job. And as for Jack O’Connell, he’s a star. Most people just don’t know it yet.