Director: Yann Demange
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris, Richard Dormer
When I heard that Jack O’Connell was starring in an intense, edge of the seat, action-thriller, I immediately shortlisted ‘71’ as a film that I had to watch. As a big fan of his work I had high hopes for this film, despite me having very limited knowledge of the Irish and Northern Irish conflicts or any knowledge of Yann Demange’s style of directing. I was expecting brutality, violence and killing, which I was offered in abundance, yet this film still managed to shock me.
The story follows Gary Hook, a young man from Derbyshire – aptly portrayed by Jack O’Connell – as he and his comrades are thrown into the frontline during the Belfast conflicts of 1971. After becoming separated from his squadron, Hook must survive in the dangerous urban jungle that he finds himself in, and try to find his way back to the safety of his barracks. The claustrophobic manner in which these alien surroundings were shot made Hook’s struggle and fear all too real, and I really felt as if I were running, hiding and fighting alongside him. There are two sequences in the film that stand out from a stylistic viewpoint; firstly when Hook is being chased and shot at down the narrow side streets of Belfast, the handheld camera style contributing to the sensation that we are running along side him. Similarly, after an explosion, Hook is stalked by the same handheld camera technique, helping to create a sense of disorientation and confusion, which again results in us as the viewer feeling like we have felt the full extent of the blast as well. This is a technique which runs throughout the film, manifesting itself in various different scenarios; whether we are in the thick of the action on the front line of a protest or in the barracks with the soldiers. All in all, this technique reinforces the sense of this as a very personal experience; that we are facing this struggle alongside Gary Hook and that we are just as helpless as he is to the vicious environment he finds himself at the heart of.
There were two excellent performances that deserve mention. An outstanding, albeit brief, performance from Corey McKinley – as an unnamed, foulmouthed Loyalist Child – threatens to steal the show. From hurling urine at soldiers, to taking Hook under his wing and intimidating men old enough to be his father, McKinley has an aura way beyond his years. Although it is a somewhat disturbing social message to display a young child in such an environment, his character and performance were an uplifting contrast to the dark and menacing people around him, with McKinley offering a comedic break from the brutal nature of the streets of Belfast. Secondly, the performance of the star Jack O’Connell is brilliant but the powerful narrative of the film definitely takes precedence over his performance, meaning that he doesn’t have the scope to be quiet as memorable as his previous roles. He is an actor who I have watched a lot of recently and it’s difficult not to be hugely impressed with his work.
Jack O’Connell’s performance in ‘Starred Up’ is truly exceptional and this offering confirms the idea that he really has the potential to be, the best up and coming superstar that the country has produced, and it appears that the British public agree when they voted to award him with this year’s BAFTA Rising Star award. Having already broken the surface of Hollywood, starring in Angelina Jolie’s ‘Unbroken’ and the disappointing second installment of the ‘300’ franchise. It appears that the future is rosy for this Jack The Lad, but my only fear is that he will find himself typecast to similar roles in his films, a notion that actors like Liam Neeson has made us all too aware of. Yet his recent performances in Hollywood blockbusters highlight his ability to steer away from characters in the likes of ‘Skins’, ‘Starred Up’ and arguably ‘71’ – a modern day “Angry Young Man”, similar to the likes of Albert Finney and co. who dominated British realist cinema for decades.
Stylistically, ‘71’ is one of the most accomplished films I have seen in recent times. The simple technique of using handheld cameras has such a powerful effect on the action and the narrative, that it makes it impossible to distance ourselves from what is happening on screen. In a film that packs the narrative full of social messages, the overriding feeling I got from Demange’s portrayal of war, is that there is no such thing as good and evil, but more “every man for himself”. The Tarantino-esque finale, in which multiple individuals converge on the same space, is the culmination of this selfish nature upon which wars are started. ‘71’ throws us into the heart of the conflict and by the end we feel the same sense of futility and hopelessness that Gary Hook and his counterparts are overwhelmed by throughout.