"Oh no, not another film about the Troubles!" You'll be forgiven for thinking this when faced with the synopsis for Brit television veteran Yann Demange's debut feature: a British squaddie just assigned to Belfast in 1971 finds himself lost and alone in the city after an operation goes wrong. But Mr. Demange's dynamic, driven film manages to successfully evade the cliches that lurk throughout Gregory Burke's script, much thanks to an electrifying opening act that throws the viewer right into the heart of the matter and goes a long way towards making up for any later frailties.
Following the training and deployment of soldier Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) to Belfast, the film then throws him immediately out of his depth in an urgent run for his life through the back alleys of a city ruled by hate and fear. By looking at it from the point of view of a rank private thrown in way over his head and finding himself alone in enemy territory with no one to trust or look to for help, Mr. Demange immediately sets the film in a zone of constant surprise where anything can happen, much helped by an expert treatment of tempo, pacing and rhythm, lenser Tat Radcliffe's driving visuals moving the tale forward effortlessly. It's quite a start, and as the plot starts developing, involving the complicated shifting of allegiances back and forth, it's evident the director is looking at '71 as a sort of urban western or contemporary resistance movie, with Mr. Radcliffe making the most out of his handheld camera and of the oppressive, claustrophobic warrens of dank corridors, aging pubs and cinder block emptiness where the tale takes place.
In Mr. Burke's script and Mr. O'Connell's constantly dazed performance, Hook is probably the one true innocent caught up in a corrupt system where he is merely a "useful idiot" and out for a rude awakening about his role as a soldier - as colourfully said early in the movie, it's all about "posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts". '71 thus becomes as well an indictment of a period in British society that was trying to hold on to its imperial, colonial mindset without truly realising how much the world had moved on from it.
For all that, as Hook becomes a lonely prey attempting to survive a full-on predator hunt, the film also relaxes into a more standard thriller mode, even if better handled and more dynamic than usual, before the climax ramps up again the driving energy to match a remarkable first 30 minutes. For most of its length, then, '71 it's a surprisingly accomplished debut, melding together thoughtfulness and action in a way few recent films have done. Don't be surprised if Hollywood comes knocking on Mr. Demange's door.
United Kingdom 2014
Cast Jack O'Connell, Paul Anderson, Richard Dormer, Sean Harris, Martin McCann, Charlie Murphy, Sam Reid, Killian Scott, David Wilmot
Director Yann Demange; screenwriter Gregory Burke; cinematographer Tat Radcliffe (colour, widescreen); composer David Holmes; designer Chris Oddy; costumes Jane Petrie; editor Chris Wyatt; sound designer Paul Davies; producers Angus Lamont and Robin Gutch; production companies Filmfour, British Film Institute, Screen Yorkshire, Creative Scotland, Crab Apple Films and Warp Films
Screened February 6th 2014, Cinemaxx 9, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 official competition press screening)