Ashley Clark

Tense, pacy and dynamic, Yann Demange’s feature debut ‘71 is the second film in quick succession, following James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer (2012), to frame the Irish Troubles in thriller terms. In order to convey a sense of the era’s climate of ineffable, omnipresent violence, Marsh opted for a muted tangle of gestures and shadowy conversations. Demange, however, goes for the jugular with a sense of headlong directness and a hallucinatory visual quality which nods to the sulphurous tones of Hieronymus Bosch and the eerily unflinching quality of Alan Clarke’s Steadicam-heavy Troubles movie Elephant (1988).

The set-up is quick and clean. Rising star Jack O’ Connell plays Hook, a young British soldier dispatched with his battalion to Belfast to ‘monitor’ the volatile situation. “I’m not even leaving the country so you’ve got nothing to worry about,” Hook tells his little brother, in a line that seems a little heavy-handed on the irony, but is necessary in underscoring the extent of Hook’s naivety. Before long, Hook becomes separated from his colleagues when a riot breaks out, and embarks on a nightmarish journey, pinballing around the shadowy streets in search of safety. Hook is keenly aware that he’s a target for the nationalists who killed his colleague, but things get even messier when he runs into a pair of senior, undercover British officers (Sean Harris and Paul Anderson, both brilliantly saturnine and venal), who are pursuing their own scurrilous agenda.

‘71 is not a political work in terms of taking specific sides in the conflict, but is empathetic to both Loyalist and Republican causes, and commendably stringent in its criticism of the institutional incompetence and arrogance of the British army. It also registers loud and clear as an anti-war statement. (The film’s own standpoint is seemingly espoused in a blunt, foul-mouthed tirade from a kindly ex-medic who puts himself in the firing line by coming to Hook’s aid: “[War is] posh c***s telling thick c***s to kill poor c***s.”) In order to make this point convincing, it’s crucial that Hook is part-tabula rasa, part-lamb to the slaughter, rather than stereotypical hero. O’Connell has very little dialogue, but commands the screen with a charismatic, intensely physical performance. He has a likeable, dopey charm but an ability to plumb wrenching emotion in a heartbeat.

For the most part, ‘71 grips like a vice; it means to get the blood flowing, and it succeeds, particularly in a couple of nerve-shredding foot chase sequences. However, Gregory Burke’s script sets up so much plot intrigue to be resolved that the final third feels a little narratively overstuffed, and must ditch its viscerally unorthodox approach in service of conventional narrative function. But that’s a minor criticism of a brisk, bold work which heralds the emergence of a very promising young director.

Follow Ash on Twitter: @_Ash_Clark

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