Directed by Yann Demange
Starring Jack O'Connell, Paul Anderson, Sean Harris, Sam Reid and Sam Hazeldine
A young British soldier must find his way back to safety after his unit accidentally abandons him during a riot in the streets of Belfast.
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★★★★★ review by MARTIN BRADLEY on Letterboxd
In 1971 I was living on the fringes of Derry's Bogside. On several occasions my home was 'collateral damage' in a number of bombings and I remember lying on the floor of my bedroom in case I might fall victim to a stray bullet from one of the gun-battles raging outside. I drank in pubs that would be bombed in time and I was on the march on Bloody Sunday. Things were bad in Derry in 1971 but they were a lot worse in Belfast which is where and when Yann Demange's terrific movie "'71" is set.
Maybe it's because I had first-hand experience but I've never really taken to films about 'the Troubles'. Irish film-makers have usually shied away from the subject, (a rare good exception being Jim Sheridan's "In the Name of the Father" and that was set mostly in England), leaving it up to the English and the Americans to tackle them, mostly ineptly, (exceptions again being Alan Clarke's made-for-television film "Elephant" and Steve McQueen's "Hunger"), so my expectations of "'71" were far from high, yet I believe this will be the film about the Northern Ireland 'Troubles' by which all others will be judged.
Firstly nothing happens on screen that seems far-fetched or exaggerated, (and here is a film that doesn't pull its punches in showing the collusion between the British Government and paramilitaries on both sides). It's a film that could never have been made in the seventies and even 20 years ago it would have been banned here in Northern Ireland. Politically, it's dynamite but it's as a nail-biting, nerve-shredding thriller that it really makes its mark.
In may respects it's a very minimalist work, taking place almost entirely over the course of one night and is really made up of two lengthy set-pieces. It's about Private Hook, (a superb Jack O'Connell), a young British solider who, on his first day of active service in Belfast, is separated from his platoon and forced to go on the run in a totally alien landscape where he is seen as 'the enemy' to be hunted down and killed. We've seen this story before. In "Odd Man Out" James Mason was the IRA man on the run in an equally treacherous Belfast but as they say, it's a tale as old as time. Outstanding American examples have included "Deliverance" and "Southern Comfort", albeit in very different settings, but few have packed the punch of "'71"; this is a terrifyingly tense thriller.
It's also the feature debut of Yann Demange who handles the material with all the assurance of a Paul Greengrass. He shoots it as if it were a newsreel, using mostly a hand-held camera, (the DoP is Tat Radcliffe), putting the audience in the centre of things. For once, all the performances are superb. In the past actors playing either Ulstermen or the occupying forces have often been reduced to nothing more than mouth-pieces; not here. Everyone on screen is utterly believable. This is one of the finest films you will see all year.
★★★½ review by davidehrlich on Letterboxd
did shaky-cam just become a political choice? grips as an action movie, but the other parts have...[puts on sunglasses] Troubles.
★★★½ review by Steven Sheehan on Letterboxd
For those who have seen Starred Up earlier in the year, the name of Jack O'Connell may have appeared on your radar for the first time. That was his first notable cinematic appearance, one that revealed the level of talent hopefully to follow. '71 is a different type of film, more in the thriller mode, with O'Connell once again taking the lead role, requiring a different set of skills to be displayed.
Anyone who grew up in the UK during the 70's or 80's were aware of the troubles in Northern Ireland, the ongoing battle between various groups on either side, predominantly led by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and the British armed forces. Yann Demange's directorial debut takes us back to the early days of the conflict when the IRA were building their power base in the region, in a two year period when the violence was at its most potent.
O'Connell isn't given much dialogue to work with as a soldier left stranded on the wrong side of the divide in the aftermath of a localised riot. He spends most of the film on the run, running or ducking through the shadows as both sides attempt to find him. Little of his personality comes through although Demange keeps the tension level rumbling along, giving us a chance to understand the invested parties pursuing their beliefs. He humanises the young men being drafted in to fight for larger political causes most of them never truly understood. We watch as live bleeds away under the lightening of gunfire, no-one really gaining an advantage amongst the bloodshed.
There are no real specifics attached to the story in terms of political stakes with more attention paid to the survival of soldier O'Connell. He gives a spirited performance through a presence that is always truly believable, as is the recreation of early 70's war zone that was Belfast. That leaves the audience to make a decision about how they want to see this version of events. It works effectively well as a thriller, although it could be suggested that the larger picture is cheapened by doing just that. Perhaps for those closer to the conflict, people who regularly saw the news reports and impact on the lives of those not so far away from their own, the story is somewhat light. For others distanced from the troubles or understanding it retrospectively, the lack of politicisation won't be an issue at all.
Either way, the film takes us vividly back to the hostile environment of that time and the echoes that continue to reverberate across other regions such as Palestine and Israel. O'Connell's reputation continues to grow and Demange introduces himself with an impressive first effort. The lasting message that rings true is about the personal impact of war on those far lower down the ranks whilst those barking the orders play their power games. A repetitive cycle that always and always will remain true, no matter where the conflict is taking place.
★★★★ review by Andy Summers on Letterboxd
I've said before on LB that many people don't and cannot understand the situation that existed in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. There have been many movies centered around events across the water, from the good, the bad, and the shameful. Hundreds of years of divided bitterness somehow transfixed into a couple of hours of celluloid. The truth is however that nothing was as it seemed in Northern Ireland. There were divided loyalties inside families, but everything was always boiled down to whether you were Catholic or Protestant, Pro-IRA or Pro-British. It was much more complicated than that, something that '71 touches on rather well.
Young British actor of the moment Jack O'Connell demonstrates his ability once again as a British soldier cut off from his unit and left to survive alone on the streets of Belfast. The film never flinches from unveiling the chaos and treachery that was around every corner. Friend or foe, trustworthy or treacherous, it was hard to decipher who was who even on your own side. As O'Connell's young squaddie tries to stay alive he witnesses the influence of the Military Reaction Force, a covert intelligence agency that was responsible for some deplorable actions between 71 and 73. Hunted by the IRA and the MRF, he just about manages to evade capture due to some friendly Catholics who tend his wounds and give him shelter. It then becomes a question of who will get to him first.
Director Yann Demange has certainly done his homework. Little was known about the MRF, even to people who lived through The Troubles. It was only years later that the collusion between the MRF and loyalist paramilitaries in the murder of Catholics became public, something Demange has fitted into this story rather well. It's dramatic and tension filled film-making with intelligence, showcasing O'Connell's star potential in a psychologically gripping white-knuckle chase movie. Demange has also lined up support acts of the highest quality. Sean Harris is, as always, a force to be reckoned with, but with Paul Anderson and David Wilmot bringing their own level of authenticity to proceedings, this is an impressive debut film for Frenchman Demange. O'Connell is already a star, and I can't wait to see what he does next.
★★★½ review by Esteban Gonzalez on Letterboxd
“Hey, listen, I don't want you worried about me, okay? I'll be fine, promise you.“
Yann Demange’s theatrical debut couldn’t have come at a better time for its lead protagonist, Jack O’Connell, after the success of Starred Up and his breakout Hollywood lead role in Unbroken. O’Connell couldn’t have chosen more physically challenging roles than he has in these three films, but he has managed to make a name for himself and he is an actor I will continue to look forward to. In ’71 he plays Gary Hook, a young British soldier who is sent to Belfast along with his unit during the war in which Irish factions were divided between the Catholics who wanted to be liberated from British rule and the Protestants who supported British involvement. The film however doesn’t spend time explaining the politics and it simply introduces us to this soldier’s life who is abandoned by his platoon when a riot breaks out in the streets. Hook struggles for his life in the midst of the turmoil in these unknown streets where he is deemed as the enemy. He runs into several people along the way without fully knowing who is on his side or who wants him killed. The action takes place during the course of one day and there are several thrills and twists along the way.
Jack O’Connell delivers another solid performance playing a soldier who is struggling to survive. We’ve seen the premise of the left behind soldier done many times before, but in ’71 we don’t get the typical war hero who fights his way through enemy lines. Here Hook fears for his life and is forced to rely on the people he encounters without knowing if they are friend or foe. Burke’s screenplay is minimal but full of thrills and suspense, and its shot with a hand-held camera that gives the chase scenes an authentic feel to them and a sense of immediacy. ’71 doesn’t give the audience a back-story and we are forced to piece the events together as they happen (or rely on our prior knowledge of the events that took place in Belfast), so the politics can become a bit unclear, but the film delivers several thrills along the way. The action escalates as the situation gets out of control pretty quickly and we easily identify with Hook’s character from early on. So it becomes more about his survival than about the politics and reasonings behind the war. Sean Harris, Paul Anderson, Sam Reid, David Wilmot, Corey McKinley, and Barry Keoghan are among the supporting actors who deliver compelling performances, but it’s O’Connell who stands out once again.
The action sequences in ’71 are the highlight of the movie thanks to the sense of immediacy captured through the lens of the hand-held camera as Hook runs through the narrow streets of Belfast. But that same technique also contributes to some headache inducing shaky camera moments. Overall it is a compelling suspenseful thriller that proves once gain that Jack O’Connell can carry a film on his own.
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