Embroiled in near-apocalyptic nihilism newcomer Yann Demange’s ’71 could be set in the seventh circle of Hell; instead conflict scarred Belfast is the backdrop for this political action/thriller complete with fallen masonry, burned out cars and balaclava wearing, arsonist infants.
Very much out of place, reserved Derbyshire squaddie Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is deployed to ‘the province’ in the grizzly early years of the Troubles of Northern Ireland. He assures his brother he’ll be okay, he’s not even going abroad. But when abandoned by his unit when a routine house to house arms search goes wrong on Falls Road he realises hell is much closer to home. Another soldier is also left behind, easy pickings for an IRA radical who guns him down as soon as the soldiers flea to the barracks. Alone, now Hook faces a fight for survival in an anti-soldier warzone where no one is to be trusted, everyone is a rat and only the embers of humanity remain; buried under bombed buildings and a heavy ashen sky.
Corruption is rife and with it comes both Hook’s and the audience’s confusion of just who wants him dead. Everyone is on his trail- some to return him to base, most to kill him. The distinction between sides is never clear and blurs as the story progresses. With death overhanging in every breath of this film the aesthetics reflect this Hades Hook may be lost to at any given moment; fires giving a sulphur glow to the night. The tension is kept taut, further augmented by David Holmes’s gripping musical score.
O’Connell’s character is believable and relatable- not to mention he’s terrific in this role. Hook is not a hero. He dodges conflict. At the epicentre of the conflict and corruption he makes no attempt to foil plots or play martyr. His sole concern is escape. ’71 under different pretences or under a different director could have easily morphed into a thriller with a strong spy genre feel. Instead we are given a realistic character in a starkly realist setting. Despite this feat the dialogue lacks depth, only used as a vehicle to explain the situation so the viewer isn’t utterly lost. Though the dialogue could be polished ’71 is an impressive debut.