In the new film "'71," set in bloody Northern Ireland during the Troubles between Catholics and Protestants, a young soldier must find his way back to his barracks. It's a story both simple and filled with complexities, a gripping, straight-ahead chase movie that's also politically aware.
Opening to rave reviews in limited release on Friday — it expands to more theaters this week — the picture is bound to draw some attention for its star, Jack O'Connell, recently seen in the lead role in Angelina Jolie's "Unbroken." But " '71" is perhaps most notable as the bold feature debut for director Yann Demange.
Demange is a successful director of commercials and British television who had been looking to make a feature film for a few years but was unable to find the right project. He was sent the "'71" script, written by acclaimed Scottish playwright Gregory Burke, and immediately responded to it.
"If you had asked me a few years ago if I would make a film about the Troubles, I would have said no way. It wasn't even on my radar," Demange said during a recent interview in Los Angeles.
"I was really nervous; after 'Hunger' and 'Bloody Sunday,' surely that had been the final word on it," Demange said, referring to other, much acclaimed films on the conflict. "After I read [the script], I thought it felt completely different and new. It had a universality, and it spoke about a pattern of behavior that could have been in Algeria or the Ukraine.
"A strange thing happened when I read it — it almost felt contemporary."
In the film, O'Connell plays Pvt. Gary Hook, a new recruit to the British army unexpectedly sent to Belfast as part of a security detail. On his first crowd-control mission, he is cut off from his squad and finds himself unarmed and alone. Afraid to give himself away due to his accent, he must navigate not only uncertain streets of Belfast on his way back to his barracks but also a world of ambiguous allegiances and murky motivations.
After "'71's" premiere at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival, it got a strong reaction on the festival circuit, playing Telluride, Toronto, New York and the AFI Fest. Demange turned 38 while in Park City, Utah, recently for the Sundance Film Festival. (For his birthday, he took his first ski lesson.) The movie was nominated for two British Academy Film Awards this year, and Demange took the directing prize at the British Independent Film Awards.
With the success of "'71," Hollywood is clearly taking notice of Demange. He has recently become attached to two high-profile projects: He will work with producers Megan Ellison and John Lesher on the cop drama "The Seven Five," as well as an untitled story based on the 1992 L.A. riots for New Regency and Brad Pitt's Plan B, the team behind back-to-back Oscar winners "12 Years a Slave" and "Birdman."
Demange was born in Paris — his mother is French and his father Algerian — and his family moved to London when he was a boy. (An aunt, a nonactor, appeared in the landmark 1966 political drama "The Battle of Algiers.") He grew up on a diet of French films his mother's relatives would send over on videocassette — "Truffaut, Melville, a lot of the bad Belmondo movies," he recalled — and eventually he would start to tape over them with movies he also liked, the action thrillers of John Carpenter, American westerns.
When he was in his late teens, he was asked by a friend's sister to fill in as an assistant on a music video shoot on Ibiza because she knew he had a passport. He was soon attending Britain's National Film and Television School and then successfully moved into directing commercials and television, including the award-winning drama "Top Boy."
The "'71" project began when Glasgow-based producer Angus Lamont took an idea for a chase film to Burke, best known for his play "Black Watch," about British soldiers in the Iraq war. The pair fashioned something they saw as a parallel to Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto," in its lean, elemental storytelling. The project eventually landed with Demange, who then worked on further developing the script.
Even while telling the story from Hook's point-of-view, the film manages to capture the complicated political situation of the Troubles without favoring one side over the other. Thrown into something he can't immediately comprehend, Hook is lost in more ways than one, such as in a startling sequence in which he is led to safety by a young boy.
"It had to remain balanced. It couldn't take sides," said Demange. "Who am I to take sides, for a start? I wouldn't have felt comfortable with it."
"The whole point was, and Yann would bang on about this, we just had to keep everybody human," said Burke. "We can't ever feel we're in the trap of making anybody the bad guy. Life is complex and full of gray areas. Everybody, in any situation, thinks they are doing the right thing."
As the project moved toward production, there was a realization that the necessary locations in Belfast were in scarce supply, as the revitalized city no longer had the inventory of period-appropriate buildings and spaces needed.
"If you want to be authentic to the look of Belfast in 1971, you couldn't do it in Belfast," said Lamont. "You had to find it somewhere else."
That meant the production actually shot in four cities in England — Liverpool, Blackburn, Sheffield and Leeds — with at least one chase scene in the film featuring shots from multiple cities. The apartment complex where the movie's finale takes place is meant to stand in for Belfast's notorious Divis Flats, contested ground during the Troubles that was knocked down in the 1980s. A similar-looking complex, now unoccupied, was found in Sheffield.
"Belfast in those days resembled a northern English mill town," said Burke. "We thought it would be a neat trick where you have a physical environment that has a familiarity to this young guy and yet the people are completely alien to him. They don't talk like him, they all look the same, they seem the same, but they're also completely different."
Though the mix of politics and action, emotional insight and adrenaline-rush excitement in "'71" seems cohesive in hindsight, it was at the start a risky proposition.
"It sounds incredibly naïve now to say it, but I never thought I was making an action film," said Demange. "I thought it was about kids growing up in conflict, I thought it was a chase film, many different things. It's not really an out-and-out art-house film, and it's not really an out-and-out multiplex film. If you had told me I was making an out-and-out action film, I'd have said of course not."