Cert: 15 / 99 mins / Dir. Yann Demange
Every so often, a film comes along which is in equal parts compelling and harrowing, which enthralls you utterly but also beats you into submission. By no means a film which you'll want to watch on a weekly basis, but a one which will stay with you and that you know will require another viewing. When you've got the strength. Requiem For A Dream is one of those films, as is Harry Brown. This year, it's '71.
The story of a young relatively inexperienced British soldier, Gary Hook, deployed to Belfast in 1971, when violent tensions between Irish unionist and nationalist factions were at a critical head. Separated from his unit on a routine callout, Hook finds himself seemingly abandoned in the heartland of an area which doesn't take kindly to the sight of a British army uniform, and it will take all of his resources just to stay alive…
Actually, I've made that sound far more Hollywood than it actually is. Despite Jack O'Connell clearly being the film's protagonist, the film focuses as much on the events surrounding him as it does his continued survival, and this is a war story without heroes (but plenty of victims - on all sides). I don't pretend to know anything about the troubles, and if anything the film only makes the situation clearer by illustrating that it's much more complicated than having two sides at each other's throats. While I'm sure there'll be differing opinions on this, the film I saw tells its story without taking sides, instead focusing on the bleakness of the whole situation.
That's not to say the war is depicted as pointless, but the end-goal of the conflict certainly seems as unreachable as any happy ending would be. '71 is one of the few films I've seen where the use of handheld cameras feels like a natural choice, as it only intensifies the sense of general noise, confusion and desperation. The desolate streets, pubs and houses*1 are filmed with a yellowing wash which evokes the past without nostalgia, and the film's wardrobe and makeup departments capture the era perfectly without going full Life On Mars*2. The only thing which struck me as odd was the lack of bite in the gunfire sound effects (of which there are plenty), considering how many of them occur in 'close quarters'. This could be an artistic choice to help the audience focus on the narrative, or to demonstrate how desensitised the characters are to the sound of gunfire, but the guns then become one of the least provocative aspects in the film. Like I said, odd.
In terms of performance, everyone brings their A-game here, with Jack O'Connell leading as only he can, bringing a sort of hardened-naivety to his role. It's essential that the audience is rooting for Hook, but not to the point where the other characters don't matter, and the cast pull this off fantastically under Yann Demange's direction. As great as he is in this, I think O'Connell's best work is still to come, and I look forward to seeing which roles he chooses after films like '71 and Starred Up. Also singling themselves out for praise among the ensemble are Corey McKinley as the funniest, sweariest 12 yr old loyalist you'll see on film this year (probably ever), and Barry Keoghan as the emotionally turbulent, but blank-faced nationalist-in-training, Sean. Both actors bring an intensity to their roles which, like O'Connell's, are bolstered by a level of innocence which the older members of the cast don't have at their disposal.
While I can't personally vouch for the historical detail or thematic accuracy of '71, the film moved me like few others have done recently, and has a violent urgency which demands a viewer's attention without being needlessly provocative. While I'd recommend the film to anyone, I know that it's not intended to be universally loved, even though it asks its questions without judging or moralising.
'71 is a bleak powerhouse of a film. Film-of-the-year material, and I don't say that lightly.
Yes. Nails it in one.
I did. Mostly gasping and crying, to be fair.
From where I'm sitting, undoubtedly.
The cinema release for this film is small, but catch it as and where you can.
I won't, largely because some people will find it too much, and for various reasons.
There isn't. Which is okay as despite the amount of screaming in the film, it would feel a little out of place.
In the bit where Private Hook is hiding in the outside toilet for several hours to evade being shot, how come none of the householders needed the loo? There's washing on the line in the yard remember, so people are living at the house, and toilet paper on the holder so the alfresco cubicle is in use.
*1 If the film's Wiki page is anything to go by, the streets used in the film are in Blackburn rather than Belfast. And I don't know if it's commendable that the production crew didn't want to stir tensions in Belfast by re-creating traumatic times-past, or more worrying that the streets of Blackburn are so easily transformable into a 20th century war-zone.
*2 Not that I'm slagging off Life On Mars, but if the TV series' "do you remember" rhetoric of flared trousers and wide-collar shirts is akin to the act of Peter Kay, then '71 is closer to the tone of Doug Stanhope or Jerry Sadowitz.
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.