PrintE-mail Written by Peter Turner


After taking a small role in 300: Rise of an Empire surely just to pay the bills, Jack O’Connell gets back to what he does best with this small scale British thriller. After starting the year with searing prison drama Starred Up, ’71 sees O’Connell as young, fresh faced British soldier Gary Hook, shipped off to Belfast in 1971 and separated from his regiment after a nerve shredding street riot. Barely having time to find his feet on the streets of the divided city, Hook goes after a child who has stolen a wounded soldier’s gun, only to find his unit have made a sudden retreat back to the barracks. Narrowly avoiding being executed by IRA paramilitaries, Hook is immediately on the run and must find a way to survive the night, trapped between warring factions.

Screenwriter Gregory Burke and first time director Yann Demange have crafted a deceptively complex thriller that has shades of John Carpenter (particularly with its throbbing score) but an endless well of moral murkiness to draw from. It might seem like a simple chase thriller in the vein of Apocalypto or The Warriors but the characters that surround Jack O’Connell’s near-silent squaddie are generally far from the disposable cardboard cut-outs of films like Assault on Precinct 13. Hook is caught up in a hellhole of backstabbing, betrayal and brutality. Allegiance means nothing in this vision of war, as undercover British officers and the IRA are constantly hampered by infighting and a cutthroat mentality.

Jack O’Connell has far less of his usual swagger here; more of a limp actually. It’s arguably his best performance, turning that usual confidence into a cowering, wounded and terrified boy out of his depth. Gone is the hard lad, replaced with something more sincere and though the camera is often pinned to his face, he rarely speaks and gives little away. In fact, by the end of ‘71, we still know little of Hook, but only enough to care that he gets home. His contact with other characters is all that’s needed and Burke’s screenplay surrounds him with children; boys even younger than him or no older. ‘71 is a film about children caught up in war; from the tykes who throw piss bombs at the arriving British soldiers to the near mute Sean whose ties to the IRA have yet to dehumanise him.

From the opening sounds of punches in the boxing ring (that could easily be mistaken for the sound of bullets hitting flesh) to the visceral scenes of violence in the streets to the unbearably tense final standoff, the violence in ‘71 is messy, relentless and unstoppable. Round and round it goes and no one wins. Demange has little time for heroes and villains or political grandstanding. Though this is an edge-of-your-seat thriller, it never loses sight of the many victims of inhumane acts of war.

‘71 puts you right in the world of 1971 Belfast, even though it was shot in various locations in contemporary England. It’s an immersive, visceral and vital film that assures O’Connell’s place as an essential presence in British cinema.

Expected Rating: 7 out of 10

Actual Rating:

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