2014; directed by Yann Demange; written by Gregory Burke; 95 mins
An excellent mid-point between Alan Clarke’s Elephant, Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday and John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, ’71 is a film that makes a strong case against the argument that genre films cannot or should not tackle tragic subjects. Set in Belfast during The Troubles, a young squaddie, Gary Hook, is left behind enemy lines when a brutal house inspection sparks a riot in the streets. Abandoned by his unit, he has no choice but to sneak his way back to the barracks in the dead of night, amidst rioting, plotting and suburban nightlife. Fully aware that the IRA are after him but unaware that some of the Brits are too…
I had to watch this three times for various reasons but the third time really drove home the visceral nature of the film. There is real fear drilled into you when watching Hook being hunted round blocks of flats and down claustrophobic alleyways. The brilliance of what director Yann Demange (intriguingly, a Frenchman of Algerian descent) has done is to immerse you in Belfast’s brick-and-tarmac suburbs, keeping you grounded amidst the action. Real faces help to introduce major characters in the heat of an action sequence in the swiftest yet smartest of brushstrokes. Demange makes sure, for example, that you notice the cold, sullen teen face of wannabe IRA killer, Sean even in the melee of the initial riot.
Tat Radcliffe‘s cinematography is suitably hard-edged, in particular the night scenes, with their black & yellow, chevron-like visuals and handheld and Steadicam shots creeping and darting round corners, in and out of the shadows. Coupled with Chris Wyatt‘s seamless editing, this becomes a film that is easily the equal of any Hollywood thriller.
The politics are difficult to reconcile, though, because of the fast-paced nature of the plot. It’s difficult to really get to grips with the issues without getting bogged down and losing the pace. With a British squaddie at the mercy of Irish people, the film could’ve had a lot of speechifying and justly so but the filmmakers make what is ultimately the right decision to release the politics through actions rather than words. What they lose in depth, they gain in momentum, creating an engaging history lesson as experience rather than earnest Oscarbait.
However, whilst Jack O’Connell does a fantastic job of holding the film together with great subtlety, he seems a bit too good and might it have been more interesting to have Hook be more of a Paddy-hating bootboy? Not that the Brits are squeaky clean by any stretch and Sean Harris as Captain Browning plays a shit so sure of himself that you wanna find the nearest person like him and punch them! It’s through Browning and his men, also, that the film discusses the blind-eye attitudes of the British top brass that led to the fallout from Bloody Sunday. Great support from Richard Dormer, Charlie Murphy, Martin McCann, Paul Anderson and Corey McKinley add to a serious, grounded and believable thriller!