It’s hard to think of another young actor such as star of ’71 Jack O’Connell having quite such a stratospheric rise to stardom in one short year. It started with his blistering turn in prison drama Starred Up, continued with mainstream guff 300: Rise Of An Empire before generating awards buzz with Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken. And sandwiched in between it all was ’71 a film that has a thunderous energy to it and in doing so allows O’Connell to demonstrate an acting talent more powerful as a result of carrying a film while the narrative happens around him.
As the Catholics and Protestants wage war on each other in Belfast during the troubles of 1971 the British Army are sent in to sniff out IRA members. On one such raid new recruit Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) finds himself separated from his platoon and trapped in a city that is gearing up for all hell breaking loose. Amid the chaos a branch of special British operatives, led by the venomous Sandy Browning (Sean Harris) are plotting something that could act as the touch-paper in a conflict already red-hot with hostility.
’71 doesn’t hang about, at a tight 90 minute running time it crams in a hell of a lot of story into a neat, often brutal package. From the opening montage of Hook’s grey, drizzled training, fleshing out his character with some emotional investment and then installing him in the caldron of hate that is Belfast you are often left breathless at how efficiently everything is unfolding. And, just as the soldiers are confronted and you’re rooted firmly to the edge of your seat the film unleashes a shocking and visceral moment of violence that will leave you gasping.
This is essentially Black Hawk Down or Behind Enemy Lines without the Hollywood gloss. Director Yann Demange, a veteran of TV shows such as Top Boy and Dead Set, gives a competent and assured feature debut. The action is raw, kinetic hand-held energy that evokes the kind of terror and pace Danny Boyle created with 28 Days Later. But Demange knows how to rack up the tension, dialing it down and then erupting in a volcanic and nail-biting finale. There is a stunning level of detail to the humanity of the situation, the brutal reality of the conflict in Ireland that would have been shirked by a more mainstream film. It’s honest, shocking and never to shies away from issues that will make you wince with horror.
Occasionally ’71 gets a little bogged down in the politics of the situation though. The result is that at times O’Connell, who is the film’s magnetic North, is sidelined in order to guide other characters to their desired end-point. But when he’s on screen, and he is thankfully for the majority of the film, O’Connell is simply mesmeric. Because it’s a quiet performance from the lad from Derbyshire, there’s no grand gestures here but rather a soldier confronted with impossible odds and terrified to trust anyone he encounters. Such is the investment O’Connell demands from you, through doing little else than assessing the conflict around him you are utterly transported into his situation.
A break-neck thriller with a deadly political under-tow, ’71 is gripping and traumatising in all the right places.