Stories that tell of a soldier's experience on the battlefield often have an equally intense struggle to overcome within themselves. However, many filmmakers have difficulty when it comes to successfully crafting both battles simultaneously. While it has been done before, it's a rare spectacle that deserves to be recognized as such. This is exactly what I expected from director Yann Demange and writer Gregory Burke's '71. It's tense for the majority of its duration, although due a series of hiccups made within Burke's screenplay, we aren't quite treated to the massively intense action drama that many viewers might be expecting. The film is still a worthwhile moviegoing experience, although it doesn't manage to meet the high expectations that I had leading up to the picture at AFI Fest.
Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) is both a father and a British soldier, who is being assigned his next mission. With his son concerned about his father's safety, Gary tries to explain that he won't even be leaving the country. When the military unit arrives in Northern Ireland, a violent riot breaks out, as they begin to retreat back to their headquarters. Gary is accidentally abandoned by the unit, as he's forced to survive on his own on the deadly streets of Belfast in 1971, being chased by people who want him dead. Willing to do whatever it takes in order to see his son again, he must stay alive long enough for his unit to make their way back.
The film begins by stressing the importance of the relationship between Gary and his son. This is an excellent play made by Burke, as we're left thinking about the little boy that's awaiting his father's safe return throughout. However, it doesn't take very long for us to appear in Northern Ireland, as the soldiers are introduced to their sleeping quarters and prepare to head out to the direct location of interest. While we get to witness a briefing, it appears as though it's intentional that we don't learn very much about this moment in history, other than the fact that Catholic nationalists and Protest unionists have turned the city into a battlefield. However, this is simply the backdrop to the physical and psychological war that Gary must overcome. This isn't a film about the politics of war, so the filmmakers skip right over these bits of material. It doesn't take very long for the riot to turn violent, as the soldiers have no choice, but to retreat. We're almost instantly introduced to a couple of thugs, who will stop at nothing to see Gary dead. However, this undying motivation truly feels unnecessary, as it inevitably leads audiences to identifying a couple of individual antagonists, rather than simply allowing the situation that Gary is stuck in to carry itself. It's as if Burke didn't trust the story quite enough.
However, not all of the citizens in Northern Ireland at this time supported the actions of the violence. Gary finds temporary solace in the care of various hospitable individuals throughout the picture. Perhaps one of the most interesting is a young boy. Even though he curses like a sailor, it's clear that every time Gary looks in his eyes, he sees a piece of his son. This makes for a powerful bond that aids to the overall impact of this man's struggle for survival. He's forced to look his inner-most demons in the face, and overcome them, otherwise he is sure to face certain death. There are various encounters with citizens that lend themselves to some fascinating scenes, as both Gary and the audience question who he can trust, and who is simply trying to turn him in. The tension builds upon itself, especially as riots move through the streets, and he must remain hidden amongst the shadows. Expect to have an increased heart rate every now and then, as Gary dodges gunfire, discovers new hiding places, and occasionally must fight his attackers. This is the moment that he has been training for, and there's no looking back.
When it comes to the middle of the second act through the remainder of the picture, we realize that Burke confuses his original direction by switching back and forth between the streets and the military's headquarters. While the politics of the history aren't explored, '71 interrupts itself by dragging us back to his superiors. The film would most certainly have a greater sense of intensity had it stuck with its protagonist, as he continues to do whatever he must in order to survive. The politics of the military are truly bothersome, and they genuinely distract us from what's important. This is where writer Gregory Burke's screenplay employs some genre clichés, which can be spotted from miles away. The third act doesn't truly deliver on the tension created through the remainder of the picture on the streets of Belfast. Fortunately, the final few moments of the running time feel fitting, even though we can't help but be disappointed with the direction in which the film has decided to take.
Lead actor Jack O'Connell has been becoming more apparent on the radars of a lot more moviegoers lately. The first feature I saw him in was Eden Lake back in 2008, and he has displayed a huge amount of growth between then and this year's Starred Up. He's absolutely spell-binding as Gary Hook. This is a portrayal that displays the wide range that O'Connell possesses. He convinces us of a genuine father at the beginning, and successfully makes the shift to an emotionally and physically strong British soldier, who is willing to do anything to get back home to his son. I bought every minute of this performance. The supporting portrayals are all decent enough, but this is Jack O'Connell's stage to shine on, and he does it brilliantly.
With '71 being Yann Demange's feature debut, he manages to deliver a strong sense of atmosphere. The film boasts an earthy color palette with various shades of yellows overlapping it all. This aids in providing a tense atmosphere that never lets us settle in our seats. Demange has an excellent sense of lighting, as the depth in the shadows give the film an eerie effect. We never know what dangers could be lurking within the darkness of the next corner, as our protagonist continues to make his way to the next "safe place." Unfortunately, if "shaky cam" makes you nauseous, then '71 will definitely do the trick. While some of this camera work lends to Gary's emotional crescendo, it gets to be a little bit too much at times. This makes some scenes difficult to see, as the picture violently shakes. Even with this one complaint, this is a strong feature debut for director Yann Demange, and he should be proud of how it turned out.
Even though this isn't the absolute masterpiece that was anticipated, '71 remains an intense ride that highlights the physical and psychological struggle of a man who must be strong for his son back at home. When we're with Gary Hook on the dangerous streets of Belfast, the tension is tremendous. Now, if only we got to spend more of the running time with him, and less with his superiors back at the military camp. Writer Gregory Burke should have trusted the story and character enough to carry the film. Fortunately, other elements of the picture make up for some of the mistakes found in the screenplay. Jack O'Connell is sensational in the best performance of his career thus far. This portrayal will surely call more attention to an actor, who already has the attention of many moviegoers around the world. '71 has the nail-biting tension of a thriller and the emotional impact of a drama. Recommended.
'71 will be playing at AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi on November 8 and November 9.