New York Film Fest: ''71' Offers Showcase for 'Unbroken' Star Jack O'Connell

NYFF '71 Screening - H 2014
Scott Feinberg

'71, a drama about a harrowing chapter of The Troubles of Northern Ireland that marks the feature directorial debut of the Algerian-French filmmaker Yann Demange, completed the fall film fest trifecta on Saturday night when it screened at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall as part of the ongoing 52nd New York Film Festival. The film, which had its world premiere back in February at the Berlin Film Festival, previously screened at Telluride and Toronto, and at its New York showing it was greeted by a long, partially-standing ovation.

Much of the interest in '71 centers around Demange's casting of Jack O'Connell, who will also play the lead role in Angelina Jolie's highly-anticipated Oscar hopeful Unbroken. In the former, the 24-year-old plays the main role of Gary Hook, a young British soldier who becomes separated from his unit during a riot on the streets of Belfast and goes through hell trying to get home. In the latter, he'll be playing World War II POW Louis Zamperini in another tale of men in battle.

O'Connell also appears in David Mackenzie's Starred Up, which was shot simultaneously with '71 but premiered at last year's Telluride Film Festival and was released last month, to rave reviews. If his quiet but sturdy performance in that film and in '71 are any indication, then Jolie may have struck oil. Certainly Demange did, and he knows it: "He's the bollocks, as they say," the director said of his star during a post-screening Q&A.

'71, which follows an original screenplay by Gregory Burke that features minimal dialog, is an ultra-intense character study with several unforgettable sequences — one chase, in particular, will leave you as breathless as O'Connell. It reminded me a lot of another great film connected to Northern Ireland, Steve McQueen's harrowing 2008 masterpiece Hunger. Other obvious relatives are Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down (2001), which centers around the quest to retrieve a man who goes missing behind enemy lines, and Fernando Meirelles' City of God (2002), in which children function as grown-ups in a society in chaos, as does one nine-year-old who befriends Gary (played by scene-stealer Corey McKinley).

Demange's film, which, as he put it, aims to deal with "the specificity and the universality of The Troubles," did not attract much interest as a concept on paper — "We couldn't get a single presell," he told me before the screening. But, based upon its strong festival buzz, it could do very well for Roadside Attractions and Black Label Media when they co-release it stateside next spring, and could thrust Demange and O'Connell into next year's awards conversation.

In the meantime, its next screening will offer people who know about The Troubles first-hand a chance to weigh in, since it will occur on Oct. 9 at the London Film Festival.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg