'71: Berlin Review

Berlin Film Festival
Jack O'Connell in '71
A gripping, nightmarish journey into the end of night that augurs great things for its debutant director

This highly impressive first feature from Yann Demange starring Jack O’Connell happens to take place in Belfast in 1971, but it’s a war story-cum-thriller with universal relevance.

A raw young soldier, transported to a strange city far from his homeland, gets accidentally left behind enemy lines by his regiment during a riot; wounded, lost and terrified, he becomes a pawn caught up in power struggles between and within opposing factions in a brutal, senseless conflict. That’s the plot of ’71, a story that could easily be set in any number of contemporary war zones -- Afghanistan, say, or Syria -- but it happens to unfold in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the year indicated by the title. As much an urban thriller as a war movie which mostly takes place over the course of one night, this outstanding, muscular feature debut for French-born, British-based director Yann Demange almost never puts a foot wrong, from the softly underplayed performances to the splendidly speckled cinematography and fine-grained period detailing.

No one in the film’s cast list is known much beyond British borders (although that will change soon), which will surely affect the film’s asking price. However, international buyers from the U.S. and beyond are likely to be keenly interested in this very exportable nail-biter which never preaches politics or takes sides in a conflict that still rumbles on to this day, albeit with less violence than it did in 1971. Instead, Demange and screenwriter Gregory Burke (who has form with soldier stories after writing the acclaimed stage play Black Watch) put the traumas suffered by ordinary soldiers and civilians, especially young men, at the heart of the story (there is essentially only one female character). Meanwhile, the script even-handedly depicts the stupidity, venality and all-round brutality of men from every faction of the Troubles, from the British Army to the internally-riven IRA to the Protestant paramilitaries. It’s not exactly a cheerful subject, and yet despite all that the film still finds room for a mutedly hopeful denouement.

Although the story encompasses a diverse cast of characters, the anchor of the story is Derbyshire lad Pvt. Gary Hook (23-year-old Jack O’Connell, who’s finally starting to land leading roles after Starred Up and a long run playing wayward kids and thugs). First met having a day out with his little brother Derren (Harry Verity) who still lives in the children’s home he also grew up in, Hook is shipped out along with his regiment to Belfast, which in 1971 was still just starting to climb up the bell curve of fatalities as the Troubles gathered pace. Billeted on folding cots in a reclaimed schoolhouse, Hook, his buddy Thompson (Jack Lowden) and the rest of the squad are advised by their corporal (Babou Ceesay) that they’ll “only be staying here ‘til one of the Paddies shoot you.”

His words are unsurprisingly prophetic, for the very next day, the regiment is deployed to provide back up for the local police force, the RUC, as they search a house for hidden guns in the Catholic area near the Falls-Road frontline. (The location used was actually in Blackburn, England, which only just passes for period Belfast.) A riot soon comes to a full boil, shots are fired, and men are killed. Hook, trying to retrieve a rifle snatched by an urchin in a grubby sweater (even the knitwear choices are spot on throughout) gets stranded behind the wrong side of the riot line and forgotten when the troops retreat. Suddenly he has to flee through the warren of houses from IRA men bent on killing him.

As Hook makes his way around the area with its burning vehicles, Molotov cocktails and fear-filled near-deserted streets, the film increasingly starts to recall the dystopian urban nightmares of early John Carpenter (especially Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York). And that’s not even having to take into account David Holmes’ Carpentarian score, all echo-laden guitars and droning, subsonic synths that heighten suspense. Blown hither and yon by forces he barely understands, Hook falls first into the hands of the UDF -- the Protestant para-militaries, who seemingly take orders from a delightfully foul-mouthed nine-year-old boy (scene-stealer Corey McKinley) – and then, after a shock twist, the care of two Catholic Samaritans, Eamon (Richard Dormer, from Good Vibrations) and his daughter Brigid (Charlie Murphy), who don’t know which faction of the warring IRA they should hand him over to, old guard-representative Boyle (David Wilmot) or ruthless young “Para” Quinn (Killian Scott).

By the end, Hook is on the run from just about everyone, not least some of his own army’s undercover counterinsurgents, led by the weaselly Captain Browning (Sean Harris) and his men, who are working some inscrutable strategy of their own, manipulating the UDF and both IRA factions against each other. Everything comes together in a nocturnal, multilevel, multi-player game of cats-and-mice in a rundown tower block, shot on digital stock that meshes beautifully in the hands of DoP Tat Radcliffe with the daylight sequences filmed on 16mm. The cinematography is particularly splendid throughout, implementing fine palette gradations so that the look goes from cool, near sepia tones in the daytime shots and then gets increasingly nacreous and surreal in the lead up to the climax.

Known mostly for his TV work, including cult comedy series Man in a Box and multicultural crime drama Top Boy, Demange displays impressive confidence with this widescreen, in every sense, feature debut. A big part of his achievement resides in the casting of such a veteran crew of character actors in the first place, but credit is due for coaxing such subtle performances, and for showing such restraint with what might have been strident material in another’s hands. There’s also a pinpoint-fine attention to detail here that’s consistently winning, from the slang of the dialogue to the credibility of the hair styles, for once eschewing the shaggy man wigs that ruin so many early-70s-set movies.

If the film has a flaw it’s that it doesn’t quite know when to stop, and keeps stacking on conclusive moments on top of each other, some of them on the verge of trite (dog tags thrown into the sea, for example). But that’s a minor quibble against what otherwise looks to be one of the strongest British films of the year.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)

Production: A Film4, BFI, Screen Yorkshire, Creative Scotland presentation of a Crab Apple Films, Warp Films production

Cast: Jack O’Connell, Paul Anderson, Richard Dormer, Sean Harris, Martin McCann, Charlie Murphy, Sam Reid, Killian Scott, David Wilmot

Director: Yann Demange

Screenwriter: Gregory Burke

Producers: Angus Lamont, Robin Gutch

Executive producers: Sam Lavender, Tessa Ross, Dan Macrae, Danny Perkins, Hugo Heppell, Mark Herbert, Lizzie Francke, Leslie Finlay

Director of photography: Tat Radcliffe

Production designer: Chris Oddy

Costume designer: Jane Petrie

Editors: Chris Wyatt

Music: David Holmes

No rating, 99 minutes