An incendiary film that takes off like a house afire, "'71" is a tense thriller from Britain that so adroitly joins physical intensity, emotional authenticity and political acuity that you may find yourself forgetting to take a breath.
Nominated for nine British Independent Film Awards (and winning one for Yann Demange's superb directing), "'71" has a plot that couldn't be more straight ahead: a soldier, played by rising star Jack O'Connell, is caught behind enemy lines and attempts to make it back to safety. Alive.
But this is not any war; this is, as the title indicates, Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1971. That was the pivotal year when the "Troubles," the bitter tribal enmity between the Catholic IRA and the Protestant Loyalists, began erupting into terrible carnage, and young and naive British soldiers like the film's Gary Hook found themselves uncomprehendingly in the middle.
Though this is his first theatrical feature, Demange is not just any director either. He's worked extensively on British television, and his "Top Boy" series was especially well received. Plus he's got the benefit here of a lean, propulsive script by playwright Gregory Burke, whose stage production "Black Watch" won 22 prizes worldwide, including Britain's coveted Olivier Award.
Also essential to the film's success is the fluid yet edgy camera work by Demange's regular cinematographer, Tat Radcliffe (who shot the days in 16 mm and the nights digitally), brisk editing by Chris Wyatt and a propulsive score by David Holmes that finds room for blues classics like Elmore James' "The Sky Is Crying" and Solomon Burke's "Cry to Me."
And in O'Connell, one of Britain's premier young actors (the terrific "Starred Up" as well as Angelina Jolie's "Unbroken"), the filmmakers have the best possible lead, an actor who can convey emotion even when he's standing still. "He has an old-school masculinity," Demange told Sight & Sound magazine. "He's cut from a different cloth. There's a bit of danger there."
The shrewdness with which "'71" tells its story is evident right from the start. First we see young Hook engaging in bonding experiences with the other men in his British army regiment, all of whom are being sent to Belfast on an emergency basis.
Before that deployment, however, both Hook and the film take time to visit the soldier's little brother, Darren (a wonderful cameo for Harry Verity), being raised, as Hook himself was, in an orphanage. Seeing how much Darren cares about Hook exponentially increases how much we care about him ourselves once circumstances put the young man in dire peril of losing his life.
For Belfast turns out to be a land mine of a city, a savage blasted environment where cars burn at night and tempers sizzle 24-7. No one is particularly happy to see the British military, but the Protestants are more likely to be friendly, while the hostile Catholics are increasingly split between the traditional IRA and the younger, even more violent Provos.
On their first Belfast patrol, Hook and his mates promptly get lost, but their rescuers, men from the Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary, precipitate a riot in a Catholic neighborhood by the naked brutality of their interrogations. A furious crowd gathers, events spiral quickly out of hand. Suddenly Hook has been accidentally abandoned by his mates and caught up in threatening events he must survive without fully understanding.
It is the great accomplishment of "'71" to ring a complex yet completely convincing series of changes out of this basic situation. Hook tries desperately to navigate this fractured, sinister city as an ever-widening group of people want him dead for an ever-increasing series of reasons.
Hook's immediate problem are Haggerty (Martin McCann) and Quinn (Killian Scott), a pair of Provos who are determined to shoot him on sight, an aim that infuriates IRA neighborhood leader Boyle (David Wilmot).
On the British side, there is clear hostility between the regular army, represented by the posh Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid), and the Military Reaction Force, plainclothes soldiers like Lewis (Paul Anderson) and Browning (Sean Harris) engaged in counterinsurgency work they prefer nobody know anything about.
As all these forces swirl around Hook, we see more than he does how amoral this conflict is, how blood lust builds on blood lust, creating its own imperatives for violence that no one is finally safe from.
Demange's considerable accomplishment as a director is to place us in the dead center of this chaotic nightmare along with Hook, to have us feel what he is feeling not at a remove but just as he's experiencing it. Nothing is extraneous, no moment that doesn't enhance the tension of this nightmare scenario is allowed to survive, until the proceedings become, in the best possible sense, almost unbearable to watch.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes