“Hey, listen, I don't want you worried about me, okay? I'll be fine, promise you.“
Yann Demange’s theatrical debut couldn’t have come at a better time for its lead protagonist, Jack O’Connell, after the success of Starred Up and his breakout Hollywood lead role in Unbroken. O’Connell couldn’t have chosen more physically challenging roles than he has in these three films, but he has managed to make a name for himself and he is an actor I will continue to look forward to. In ’71 he plays Gary Hook, a young British soldier who is sent to Belfast along with his unit during the war in which Irish factions were divided between the Catholics who wanted to be liberated from British rule and the Protestants who supported British involvement. The film however doesn’t spend time explaining the politics and it simply introduces us to this soldier’s life who is abandoned by his platoon when a riot breaks out in the streets. Hook struggles for his life in the midst of the turmoil in these unknown streets where he is deemed as the enemy. He runs into several people along the way without fully knowing who is on his side or who wants him killed. The action takes place during the course of one day and there are several thrills and twists along the way.
Jack O’Connell delivers another solid performance playing a soldier who is struggling to survive. We’ve seen the premise of the left behind soldier done many times before, but in ’71 we don’t get the typical war hero who fights his way through enemy lines. Here Hook fears for his life and is forced to rely on the people he encounters without knowing if they are friend or foe. Burke’s screenplay is minimal but full of thrills and suspense, and its shot with a hand-held camera that gives the chase scenes an authentic feel to them and a sense of immediacy. ’71 doesn’t give the audience a back-story and we are forced to piece the events together as they happen (or rely on our prior knowledge of the events that took place in Belfast), so the politics can become a bit unclear, but the film delivers several thrills along the way. The action escalates as the situation gets out of control pretty quickly and we easily identify with Hook’s character from early on. So it becomes more about his survival than about the politics and reasonings behind the war. Sean Harris, Paul Anderson, Sam Reid, David Wilmot, Corey McKinley, and Barry Keoghan are among the supporting actors who deliver compelling performances, but it’s O’Connell who stands out once again.
The action sequences in ’71 are the highlight of the movie thanks to the sense of immediacy captured through the lens of the hand-held camera as Hook runs through the narrow streets of Belfast. But that same technique also contributes to some headache inducing shaky camera moments. Overall it is a compelling suspenseful thriller that proves once gain that Jack O’Connell can carry a film on his own.