If you’re like me, you’ve been waiting a little too long for a decent offering of a creative, minimalist and exciting approach to the suspense driven thriller to come along. Some of the most recent stand out films that comes to mind is Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips and the 2010 contained coffin flick Buried. A few weeks ago, I sat down to watch the highly anticipated and critically praised thriller, Locke: another contained 90-minute indie that starred Tom Hardy sporting a questionable Welsh accent as a man trying to keep both his personal and professional life from shattering into pieces as he drives from Birmingham to London. The film ultimately disappointed as a ‘thriller’ but stunned and gripped me as an excellent ‘drama’. So it turned out I had to wait a little longer before for my thirst of a whip-bang, gut-wrenching and riveting thriller was going to be quenched.
Fresh from completing basic training for Her Majesty’s Royal Army, young single father Gary Hook is shipped along with his unit on a supposed peace keeping mission to Northern Ireland during ‘The Troubles’. Hardly the most staggering or innovative premise for a film, however, it was this seemingly simple and stripped back setup that was arguably the cause of my left eyebrow elevating a few centimetres. That and the promise of a tense and heart-pounding thriller set against the background of a fascinating historical backdrop.
When Private Hook and his unit arrive on the tumultuous and hazardous streets of Belfast, Demange creates a land that feels other otherworldly, an almost post-apocalyptic like place. The devastation and bleakness on display is jaw dropping and confounding. You are instantly transplanted into the eyes of these rookie foot soldiers with that slow build up of unease and uncertainty flowing over you as the countdown to the eventual conflict begins.
The simple, yet extremely effective, documentary approach Demange uses (the whiff of early Paul Greengrass in the air), along with the stunning cinematography and David Holmes’ captivating score all had an enthralling effect on me. I felt my throat choking on the cigarette smoke, fumes from the vehicles and houses on fire. I found myself catching my breath along with Gary as he ran away from gunfire. This film had me gripped instantly.
Within the first act of the film, Hook is separated from his squad after a protest riot gets out of hand, resulting in Hook’s friend being murdered before his eyes. Hook is then forced to escape into the unknown as he tries to evade his IRA pursuers. The stranger in a strange land plot is a mechanic that has been done to death over the years and while the script may not offer up as many surprises as one may like, Demange and his team are able to breathe new life into this worn tale. It’s a bare boned approach that throws away overly stuffed, convoluted character development and subplots, making for a more seamless, sharper and visceral piece.
’71 throws you right into the deep end of one of the most controversial and turbulent times in recent British and Irish memory. ‘The Troubles’, which was the name given to ethno-nationalist conflict that arose in Northern Ireland toward the end of the 1960’s and lasting (arguably) until 1998. However, just like its main protagonist, ’71 is quite far removed from politics. In fact, it isn’t really a political film at all. It’s a film about different ideals. It doesn’t focus on the conflict between politicians in a conference rooms. This is a dirty and grimy story that pins its eye on the very people this infamous conflict and debate effected. It has an almost documentarian view of the brutal consequences of this dispute. The film strives to provide an extremely up-close and personal ground view of the cost of war. ’71 really throws up a lot of questions and unlike many similar efforts dealing with a sensitive and significant recent historical event, it doesn’t answer them for you. It lets you, the audience, go away with what you have seen and asks you to mull it over and think for yourself.
This entire film however, would not have worked in any sense unless it had been for Jack O’Connell’s masterful, introverted and balanced performance. The young Derbyshire actor has had one hell of a 2014, turning out strong performances in the excellent Starred Up and the disappointing Unbroken. In ’71 he not only convinced me that he was a tough young soldier who could stand his ground but makes it abundantly clear throughout the course of this story that he is essentially a naïve and vulnerable soul. A boy lost in the terrifying wilderness. For a film that pins us on the shoulder of the main actor for most of its run, O’Connell holds our attention and the film itself together with ease.
However, it’s not a flawless film. The script to ’71 isn’t wholly original or, in many regards, that shocking. As the film gets closer and closer to its climax, plotholes and weaker scripting begin to emerge. I felt like many of the decisions made toward the end of the film used many clichéd and flawed devices you seem to find in student filmmaking. The climax appeared to be a little too drawn out and one or two things would happen where I felt like shouting out ‘Why would you do that!?’ I found myself tailing off at the end a little into my own thoughts as I was coming up alternate ways certain things should have happened, like a bank robber coming up with Plan A, B and C for a heist.
I know I’ve made it clear that one of the things I loved most about ’71 was its simplicity but in some respects, this also acted as a hindrance. Perhaps a little more subtle character development for its protagonist would have helped the audience invest a lot more in the uncertain fate of Gary Hook. One or two surprises in the story, especially its climax would have been a welcome addition to the proceedings.
However, none of these issues majorly detract or stop ’71 being one of the most memorable and enthralling films of 2014. It’s high-concept entertainment with relevance. It will give your gut, heart and head a pounding. All five of your senses will be heightened, as you fear for the safety of Gary Hook. It marks the beginning of some truly exciting talent in filmmaking.
’71 will be available on Blu-Ray and DVD this March.
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