Every so often, a young director and an on-the-rise actor come together for something extraordinary. Such is the case with “’71,” director Yann Demange’s intense, exhilarating tale of a British soldier separated from his unit in bloody, early-’70s Belfast.
That on-the-rise actor is Englishman Jack O’Connell, who was officially anointed Next Big Thing when Angelina Jolie selected him as the lead in her Louis Zamperini biopic, “Unbroken.” By the time the film was released in December, however, it was two earlier performances that sealed the deal.
The first was 2013’s “Starred Up,” a dark, moving prison drama that showcased O’Connell the way 2008’s provocative “Bronson” showcased Tom Hardy years before “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Soon after, “’71” made its debut to huge acclaim at the Berlin and Toronto international film festivals, and once “Unbroken” was released, it was clear O’Connell had arrived.
“’71” should erase any lingering doubts about whether the hype was justified. As young British soldier Gary Hook, O’Connell is heartbreakingly vulnerable, memorably fierce, and altogether unforgettable.
So is the film. North American audiences have seen numerous films on the years of conflict in Northern Ireland, many of them very, very good. But “’71” is a different kind of portrait. This is street-level cinema, and interestingly, takes an almost apolitical stance.
In this way, “’71” is quite unlike Steve McQueen’s “Hunger,” Paul Greengrass’ “Bloody Sunday,” or Jim Sheridan’s “In the Name of the Father.” It takes no sides, nor presents a political debate. It is instead an immersion directly into the line of fire.
“Welcome to the regiment,” Hook is told, as blood streams down his face in the opening frames of “’71.” Hook is an orphan who has only his younger brother for support. (The scenes between the two demonstrate O’Connell’s sweetness and subtlety.)
Expecting to head to Germany, Hook’s regiment is instead deployed to Belfast on an emergency basis to quell rioting.
As explained to the troops, Belfast is divided into the Protestant loyalist east (“Friendly,” they are told) and the Catholic nationalist west (“Hostile”). Cars burn in the street, both children and adults seem on the verge of eruption.
As the soldiers quickly discover, this is a bleak, paranoid landscape of complex intentions and loyalties. As a character states later, “The situation is confused, to say the least.”
The regiment’s first task, searching for firearms on a nondescript street, quickly becomes a violent disaster. In the melee that follows, Hook becomes separated from his regiment and is forced to run for his life.
The sequence starts with a sudden act of violence and culminates in a chase as kinetic and pulse-pounding as any in the “Bourne” series. This tension does not diminish. In fact, the pace is maintained for the entirety of the film’s 99 minutes.
While the film does not skimp on showing acts of violence from both the Irish and the English, we see kindness and rationality from both sides. At various points, Hook’s life is saved by a young boy, a young couple and even a gun-wielding teenager.
As portrayed by O’Connell, Hook is a soldier stuck in an impossibly dangerous situation for reasons that have little to do with him. His goal becomes survival, and that is no easy task.
At a key moment in the film, Hook finds sanctuary, and, seemingly, friendship, but a bombing follows. The post-explosion sequence is haunting, as is the film’s final confrontations. These moments, especially, reveal Demange to be a stunningly ambitious filmmaker.
“’71,” then, features a revelatory pairing – one of the world’s finest young actors and a director making his feature debut. Expect more greatness to follow from O’Connell and Demange.
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Paul Anderson, David Wilmot
Director: Yann Demange
Running time: 99 minutes
Rating: R for violence, disturbing images and language.
The Lowdown: A British soldier becomes separated from his unit during a riot in Belfast in 1971.