Violent and gripping, ’71 is a masterful thriller
by Stefan Dobroiu
- Yann Demange explores danger and confusion during a dark episode in the history of Northern Ireland
Those who think that the ethno-nationalistic clashes in Northern Ireland in 1971 are not well known enough outside the United Kingdom to be international thriller material should think again: Yann Demange’s first feature, ’71 [+see also:
Q&A: Yann Demange
film profile], explores to great effect a day (and night) in the violent history of Belfast, and the result is so compelling that his film may be enthusiastically received both in festivals and at regular cinemas.
"The Troubles" is the name that locals and historians assigned to those times, and the audience soon finds out why. The story follows Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell, an excellent actor), a young British soldier whose regiment is deployed to Belfast, where Protestant Loyalists are fighting with the Catholic Nationalists. Both groups have paramilitary factions, and the British must make sure that carnage does not break out. But following a riot, Hook finds himself left behind, wounded and completely on his own in a dark city where a gun may be pointed at his head at every corner. Caught in a brutal frenzy of killings and revenge, Hook struggles to stay alive, with only instinct and luck as weapons.
The interesting thing about Gregory Burke’s screenplay is that the story can take place in any location where people who, only months before, were good neighbours suddenly become sworn enemies. The story manages its resources perfectly, always gripping, always unpredictable, and taking advantage of the myriad and wildly different aims of all its characters. After Paul Greengrass won the Golden Bear with Bloody Sunday in 2002 and Jose Padilha repeated the success with Elite Squad in 2008, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the jury, led by James Schamus, chose this story of authority versus rebellion and loyalty for an important award on Saturday.
The film’s engrossing performances and rhythm (thanks to some great editing by Chris Wyatt) are deftly assisted by Tat Radcliffe’s camera work. Sometimes so shaky that it makes a Jason Bourne film look like a still image, ’71 owes a lot to the DoP because he succeeds in bringing to the screen all of the confusion and chaos that reigned over the burning streets of Belfast during those grim days in the history of Northern Ireland. Dark, narrow alleys and bleak back yards transform Hook into a bleeding Theseus, wandering through a labyrinth of horrors with no demi-godly powers nor Ariadne’s thread.
Under no circumstances an entertaining thriller, ’71 will ask a lot of the audience. The screenplay does not offer much in the way of contextual information or character background, but this is only a way to emphasise the confusion and futility of all of the brutal acts that happen on-screen. Always gripping and violent, Demange’s opus is a powerful anti-war film and an excellent example of compelling cinema. If the rest of the titles competing for the Golden Bear are as good as ’71 and Jack [+see also:
film profile], both screened on the second day of the festival, the 64th edition’s competition may be the best in years.