Starring Jack O’Connell, Sam Reid, Shaun Harris
It is 1971 and The Troubles are raging in Northern Ireland. On his first day on the streets of Belfast, Private Hook (Jack O’Connell) finds himself separated from his squad during a riot. Deep in Catholic territory and on the run from IRA gunmen, Hook struggles for survival. Unsure who to trust the young solider stumbles through an intricate mesh of unexpected alliances and double dealing, as he attempts to limp his way back to barracks.
Using the historical setting of the political and religion-fuelled turmoil in Northern Ireland, Yann Demange creates a tense action thriller. He lends a claustrophobic edge to this urban environment, with its maze of alleyways and the Brutalist concrete architecture of the tenement buildings, with lots of hand-held camera work kept in tight. The end result often feels cramped and nightmarish, perfectly capturing Hook’s plight.
In fact ’71 puts a lot of attention on ratcheting up the sense of disquiet felt by the audience and maintaining that tension. David Holmes’ minimal sound track is excellent in this regard, melding with clever use of the diagetic sound to build this tension, especially in some of the set pieces. For example, as Hooks first mission starts to go wrong, the constant clang of garbage cans (a warning signal used in the streets of Belfast) acts as a percussive background to the flaring temperaments of the mob. An intermittent blare of a horn from the score periodically undercuts this, grating at the nerves till the whole scene reaches a climax. It is an effective layering of the multiple elements, adding to the close-in camera work of the press, building a sense of confusion and volatility.
It is that sense of volatility that this film mines for all it is worth. There is a constant threat expressed throughout it, as Hook is plunged into a situation he little understands. Jack O’Connell (Unbroken) gives a taciturn performance as a man out of his depth and struggling to survive. When violence comes it is sudden, often unexpected, and usually fatal. Consequently there is a feeling of genuine stakes here, and Hook is not some Bourne or Bauer, able to shrug off bullets and walk away from explosions. He is constantly vulnerable, and is often reliant on flight more than fight. Add to this that differing factions are pushing personal agendas, on both the Orange and Green side, and it really does become a tense thriller as he is also forced to navigate a web of intrigue.
At the end, ’71 really is the sum of its parts. The in-close camera work, the nightmarish urban environment, the minimal soundtrack, O’Connell’s intense performance, the intricate script – all build on each other to produce a tight and solid thriller.
’71 screens at Somerville, UWA from Monday, February 23, until Sunday, March 1, and ECU Joondalup Pines from Tuesday, March 3, until Sunday, March 8, as part of Lotterywest Festival Films. For tickets and session times, go to perthfestival.com.au.