Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Yann Demarge
Stars: Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris, Richard Dormer, Sam Reid, Charlie Murphy, Killian Scott, Barry Keoghan.
Sectarian violence erupted in Northern Ireland in the early 70s as the bitter conflict between Catholics and Protestants began to spiral out of control. British troops were sent in to try and maintain an uneasy peace. Amongst the green and inexperienced squad sent to Belfast is young private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell, recently seen in Angelina Jolie’s tough war film about survival and endurance Unbroken). The troops are sent into a tough area, which only heightened the tension on the streets.
When a riot breaks out, their inexperienced lieutenant (Sam Reid) panics and mob violence erupts. One soldier is dead, and Hook is left behind in the confusion. Stranded in hostile territory and hunted by a couple of hotheaded IRA thugs, Hook has to try and find a safe place to hide and await rescue.
He is taken in by a Catholic couple in former medic Eamon (Richard Dormer from Good Vibrations, etc) and his sympathetic daughter Brigid (Charlie Murphy) and given temporary sanctuary. But Hook is unsure who he can trust as he makes his way through this labyrinthine and desolate urban jungle. Meanwhile back in the squad’s headquarters, enigmatic intelligence officer Captain Browning (Sean Harris) has his own agenda to follow, and Hook’s welfare is not primary amongst them.
There have been a number of films that have explored the troubles in Ireland, such as Bloody Sunday, In The Name Of The Father, A Quiet Day In Belfast, made for tv movie Omagh, etc, but 71 is one of the best films to delve into this volatile period of recent history. The tense hunt is also reminiscent of the 1947 James Mason thriller Odd Man Out at times. Written by Gregory Burke, this is a confronting and hard hitting thriller that delves into the murky and volatile situation that was Belfast circa 1971. This is the debut feature for director Yann Demarge, a filmmaker with vast television experience, and he vividly depicts this threatening world in which it is unclear where each person’s loyalties lie. Demarge doesn’t glorify the violence but he brings a gritty realism to those scenes of blood shed and death. He also brings a claustrophobic tension to Hart’s predicament that becomes oppressive as the night wears on.
Jack O’Connell, who was recently put through a physical wringer in the demanding Unbroken, is again put through another trying ordeal here as the young soldier thrust into a dangerous situation and feeling helpless. But whereas we knew his character ultimately survived his wartime experiences, here we are never sure whether he survives or dies, which further adds to the suspense and tension. O’Connell brings an anxiety and palpable sense of fear to his performance as the young soldier trapped behind enemy lines and desperate to survive.
A strong ensemble supporting cast that includes Dormer, Reid, Martin McCann, Killian Scott, Barry Keoghan as a young IRA thug, and an enigmatic Harris bring to life these peripheral characters.
Tat Radcliffe’s moody and bleak cinematography and use of natural lighting lends authenticity to the 70s setting, and also heightens the tension and Hook’s sense of disorientation. He brings a documentary like realism to the material, and the film effectively captures the urban battleground that was Belfast. Superb production design and period detail also effectively brings to vivid life this desolate urban war zone, with its gutted houses, firebombed cars and ruined neighbourhoods. Often handheld camera can be a distraction and an annoyance, but here it is effectively used during an exciting chase sequence, and, like Paul Greengrass in the Bourne movies and The Green Zone, it lends a sense of urgency and energy to the material and immerses the audience in the sweaty, edge of your seat action.
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