Directed by Yann Demange
Nominated for the coveted BAFTA Award for Best British Film (won in past years by films like “Gravity,” “Skyfall,” and “The King’s Speech”), “’71” is the monumental first effort from director Yann Demange, screenwriter Gregory Burke, and actor Jack O’Connell (who months later starred in “Unbroken”).
In 1971, a reemergence of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) led to rioting on the streets of Belfast where a Catholic neighborhood and a Protestant neighborhood bumped against each other. The British army was called in to keep the peace, but when rioters drove the soldiers away with rocks they had no choice but to retreat. In the chaos, the troops didn’t realize that they left behind Gary Hook (O’Connell), who had stepped away to deal with one especially rowdy rioter. Nearing sundown, Hook was left in hostile territory, being chased by men who would kill any solider that threatened to interfere on their streets. He’ll encounter people who claim to be on his side, but at the end of the day loyalties are hard to judge from a first impression.
Demange and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe set the tone early on with disorienting cinematography that doesn’t rest until Hook finds temporary relief. From there, we’re just as terrified as he is. “’71” isn’t the most exciting war movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s one of the more suspenseful ones. As Hook runs into friends and enemies, the audience starts to discover that sometimes those are the same people. Who’s on whose team? At its core, “’71” is a film about corruption and loyalties.
Hook is a man of few words, which leads him to be mostly devoid of characterization. Thankfully, classic everyman O’Connell fills him with a convincing amount of dread. The audience fears for him. We get frustrated at times. This happened in “Unbroken,” too, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. O’Connell is a rising star. Unfortunately, his costars have even less characterization. But that lets us focus all of our attention on Hook. It is his story, after all.
“’71” is a triumphant bit of British war cinema, filled with suspense. It’s not your papa’s shootout flick. And that’s a good thing.