West Belfast, 1971 – a year before Bloody Sunday – and following a riot on the streets of Belfast, British soldier Gary is inadvertently abandoned by his unit. The young squady must survive a night alone in an unforgiving and potentially lethal landscape, unable to tell friend from foe, and on the constant look out for “the enemy within”.
With ’71, debut feature director Yann Demange has crafted an exceptional thriller: tense, gritty and for the most part authentic. Along with cinematographer Anthony Radcliffe (Pride), he uses hand-held camera-work to heighten the realism and ratchet up the tension to often unbearable levels, while the early 1970s Belfast setting is captured well in subtle production design that lends the film an uneasy familiarity and closeness. This isn’t a war in a far away place, where the landscapes are alien and the villains are easily delineated – this is home.
The influences are wide and varied, with Paul Greengrass’s superlative Bloody Sunday the obvious cornerstone, but there are touches of Ken Loach and even John Carpenter in here too. Jack O’Connell is terrific in a difficult lead role, silent for large swathes of the film he oozes a stoic “get up and carry on” vibe. In other hands the character could quite easily have degenerated into the usual action hero tropes, but he is always empathetic and real. Elsewhere Richard Dormer is equally valuable as a former army doctor on the side of the republicans who may turn out to be Gary’s only salvation.
Where the film falls short slightly is in the way Gregory Burke’s script shies away from probing into the history and reasons behind the conflict. Politics and economy are largely ignored, save for a very vague expositional dialogue given to the soldiers early in the film. It lends the film a detachment that on the one hand helps to heighten the cinéma-vérité aspects, while also undermining the plight of the characters.
Nonetheless, this is an atmospheric and immediate thrill ride, crafted with great pace, focus on character and even some moments of very dark humour and an excellent central performance from O’Connell. One of the best thrillers of the year.