Berlin Film Festival 2014: ’71, review
Director Yann Demange’s film debut is a blindingly strong feature that takes a bold sensory plunge into the Troubles, says Tim Robey
By Tim Robey
11:52AM GMT 08 Feb 2014
Dir: Yann Demange. Stars: Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris, Paul Anderson, Richard Dormer, David Wilmot, Martin McCann, Killian Scott, Charlie Murphy, Sam Reid
Cert: tbc. Run time: 100 mins
Bomb-torn Belfast in 1971 must have been like nowhere else on Earth – more like a rubble-strewn circle of hell. This is the apocalyptic vision laid out in Yann Demange’s ’71, a stunningly well-crafted survival thriller just unveiled in the Berlin Film Festival‘s main competition. The film’s stark realism and bruising impact are enough in themselves, but the risk, and the real artistic payoff, is its bold sensory plunge into this Hadean inferno.
Jack O’Connell stars as Gary Hook, a young squaddie fresh out of training school, whose unit is dispatched to help with peacekeeping in the Northern Irish capital amid the rising tensions of that fatefully violent year. These unprepared rookies have barely taken to the streets before rioting breaks out, and Gary finds himself cut adrift from his companions and being chased relentlessly by an armed gang of provisional militia. As night closes in, he has no idea how to get back to his barracks, and must throw himself on the mercy of loyalist allies who prove neither consistent beacons of help nor guarantees of sanctuary.
The film‘s gamble in taking the point of view of a lone British soldier is, clearly, a major one. Gary is by no means the kind of trigger-happy meathead you might expect to find as an extra in Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday – a much more politically incendiary film which coincidentally won the Golden Bear here in 2002. Instead, he’s green, terrified, out of his depth. O’Connell’s performance in this near-wordless role, which could hardly be more different from his soon-to-be-seen breakthrough in the clink drama Starred Up, hardly strikes a false note. He’s excellent as usual.
You expect the film to make a lunge for balance at some point, but the wrinkles in its plotting arrive at offhandedly shocking moments, and it’s remarkable how well the script, by Scottish playwright Gregory Burke (Black Watch), manages to create a web of competing agendas and power-plays without indulging in heavy-weather exposition at any point. Key to the peril of Gary’s predicament isn’t just the front-line battle that’s raging, but the generational rift within the IRA’s hierarchy, not to mention the volatile relationship between loyalist paramilitaries and the British army. With a couple of dozen characters in play, this is a huge amount to juggle in 100 lean minutes, but Burke disguises his working marvellously – we’re wrong-footed all the time by the combinations of terror, guilt, manoeuvring, expediency and revenge even the most minor walk-ons betray as motives.
The story’s an extremely robust springboard, but Demange – an experienced TV veteran making a blindingly strong feature debut here – knows how to heighten its power with experiential wizardry and have us dreading what’s around every corner. Blackburn’s Victorian terraces double for Belfast’s, with an overturned car here, a burnt-out bus there, and evoke the era with eerie verisimilitude. Demange’s photographer, Tat Radcliffe, makes the lamp-lit streets gape with black threat, and his sound team turn the aftermath of a devastating pub bombing into a shell-shocked trance of disorientation.
While Gary’s desperation can’t help but summon memories of James Mason staggering around Belfast looking for refuge in Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, Demange’s urgent, pared-down style and throbbing music score are more often interestingly reminiscent of the work of John Carpenter. When Gary, trapped in a high-rise, must face down terrorists his own age – it’s him or them – the film’s moral conscience speaks quite movingly, and it’s so intuitive in controlling our headspace that not a single word is needed to get us there. In revisiting the Troubles, what this film finds is a wasteland of integrity on every front, and the only objective it comprehends is getting out alive.
BACK TO NEWS