Published Mar 13, 2015Like all civil wars, The Troubles, which lasted in Northern Ireland from 1968 to 1998, is truly difficult to understand. Thankfully, French film director Yann Demange (Top Boy, Secret Diary of a Call Girl) and screenwriter Gregory Burke forgo any discussion or reasoning behind the battles almost completely in favour of raw emotion and powerful performances in the pair's first silver screen debut,'71, a stylish military drama that's more about creating a mood than giving historical context.
Set in Belfast three years after the start of The Troubles, '71 focuses its storyline on Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell), a recently recruited British solider who, during a raid for illegal weapons, becomes stuck behind enemy lines and must run and fight for his life over a 24-hour period with little weaponry and no way to connect with his fellow comrades.
There's a reason O'Connell has won back-to-back Best Actor titles at the 2013 and 2014 British Independent Film Awards, as well as this year's EE Rising Star Award. Whether as an unrelenting and vicious brat (2013 prison drama Starred Up) or an unbreakable and athletic solider (last year's Unbroken), the 24-year-old actor consistently commands your attention during every second of his screen time, and his performance in '71 is no different.
Despite it being apparent in the first few minutes of the film that O'Connell's character possesses the good looks and physical prowess of a natural born leader, O'Connell instead plays Hook, a mostly mute military man, and captures his underlying naiveté, nervousness, and all out fury in battle perfectly with his eyes and expressive face.
Backing him up in the film is a veritable who's who of modern UK character actors. Southcliffe star Sean Harris continues to be equally detestable yet captivating as borderline-criminal Military Reaction Force leader Sandy Browning, and Martin McCann's turn as a sociopathic IRA up-and-comer will leave you holding your breath anytime his blank eyes and stoic face show up on screen.
Nuance is the name of the game in this military period piece, produced in part by Warp Films. Demange has created an exquisitely paced, taut survival thriller whose slow-burning style seems fully in line with the atmospheric and engaging sounds distributed by the production house's parent music company. This is a picture that never explicitly discusses the religious, political, sectarian or ethnic reasons behind the war. Instead, it focuses on mood (settings, music and utter lack of dialogue) to convey the perceived persecution, tension and anger from both sides, and while '71 may not be as flashy as other military-centered action flicks, it certainly feels as authentic.