LFF: ’71 review

The conflict in Northern Ireland may not seem at first to be the ideal or most appropriate setting for a survival thriller, but with ’71, director Yann Demange and screenwriter Gregory Burke have created one that proves its worth with class and elegant simplicity.

The film begins with the introduction of Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), a fresh recruit into the British army who goes through some pretty brutal training in the film’s suitably ominous first reel. He is then swiftly dispatched to Belfast where he has a really rather unfortunate first day on the job.

A routine raid on a Catholic house turns into a riot and Gary is separated from his unit, who then abandon him. This is when the really kicks into gear. After grabbing a hold on the audience with a tense foot chase, Demange rarely loosens his grip. There may be lulls in the action, but the tension never dissipates, and the drama had me wound up into a very tight coil.

As Gary struggles to make his way back to his base, Demange, cinematographer Tat Radcliffe and a group of highly talented camera crew place us right in the middle of a boobytrapped maze. They’ve shot streets in Liverpool in a way that not only convincingly pass for Belfast, but also write Gary’s fear and confusion onto the screen, the geography recreating the complexity of a conflict that also seems beyond his comprehension.

While this labyrinthian mouse trap is filled with bombed out buildings and blind alleys, we’re never allowed to forget that this oppressive setting is filled with people’s homes. At times, Gary enters these private, personal spaces, and the film becomes even more tense and uncomfortable.

Slowly, Gary starts to understand his maze. One character tells him that the army is just “rich cunts sending thick cunts to kill poor cunts,” and it seems to trigger a moment of realisation for him. Corey McKinley gives an extraordinarily confident performance as a young Loyalist boy whose nascent friendship with Gary also helps to connect us to the costs of the conflict.

It’s this kind of sensitivity that ensures that ‘71 never feels exploitative, and even when the film hits its extraordinarily effective and thrilling action beats, they’re both in the service of this particular, human story and reverential to the reality of the war.

Once again, O’Connell shows what a remarkable physical performer he is. Not just in the way he can tear down an alley at pace – although he does look the part doing so – but in the ways in which he commands his body. Watching only O’Connell’s shoulders, for example, you will understand a lot about Gary’s thoughts and feelings, and his innate naivety and vulnerability.

Bookends regarding Gary’s little brother perhaps feel a little unnecessary but ‘71 is, for the most part, a lean, and incredibly visceral, politically charged action thriller that has marked feature first-timer Demange as someone to watch very closely.

’71 will be in UK cinemas from this Friday, the 10th of October.