'71 Turns Northern Irish Conflict Into All-Too Familiar War Film
Jack O'Connell is always getting roughed up. In Unbroken he endured unimaginable torture at the hands of a sadistic prison guard, whereas in the criminally under-seen British prison drama Starred Up he dished it out when he could. As a young soldier thrown right into the heart of The Troubles in '71, O'Connell is a brute but charismatic presence in the high-wire drama. All within one rainy Belfast evening, he's stuck in survival mode as the Catholic-Protestant conflict closes in on him.The manner in which director Yann Demange shoots '71, his feature film debut, recalls both the Bourne series and The Battle Of Algiers. Demange's camera flies alongside O'Connell's Gary Hook through the devastated urban warzone as he dodges in and out of dark alleyways and broken fences. He's stuck in a Catholic neighborhood as night falls, left behind amidst the chaos. Tension is ratcheted up not just by from the claustrophobic setting, but also blurred lines that define the alliances among characters Hook encounters along the way. Uncertainty lies not just in the shadows but also in the motivations of men Hook thinks he's allied with.
"To the Army you're a piece of meat," Hook is told. O'Connell is a great dramatic actor when he's not getting shot at or in a game of cat-and-mouse with the IRA, but there's very little for him to be in '71 beyond that piece of meat to get thrown around for the camera.
Demange strives for the weight of gritty realism—between the jittery handheld camera and grey and brown hues—but he's undone by a contrived plot so full of twists that it neuters the potency and gravity of the film. '71 feels all too familiar, even if it does a sometimes admirable yet mostly serviceable job at delivering gritty action.
'71 is now playing at The Landmark and Arclight in Los Angeles and Lincoln Square and Angelika Film Center in New York.