A tense, visceral crawl into the underbelly of a dark Belfast night, ’71 (2014) is the startling feature debut of director Yann Demange and writer Gregory Burke. After initial scenes of young British recruits, including Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), being put through their pre-training rigours, word comes through an immediate assignment on the front-line. A seemingly run-of-the-mill confrontation quickly escalates in a pitted battle between the overwhelmed soldiers as the battering locals descend with a hailstorm of fists and rocks. Amidst the chaos – all of which is captured with extraordinary raw intensity by Demange and his cinematographer Tat Radcliffe– two young soldiers become isolated. Hook and his fellow soldier are vulnerable targets and when his partner becomes victim to a ruthless attack, Hook is forced to run for his life.
The ensuing set-piece is one of the film’s highlights with the intensity ramped up to breaking point. Hook dodges bullets whilst ducking in and out of suffocatingly narrow streets, running headlong into a netherworld, blind to what lurks around corners, and unable to gauge his enemies. It’s terrifying stuff and again, the kinetic, frantic heart-in-mouth race for survival is captured with a blistering rawness, a combination of rapid editing and jittery hand-held sweeps and charges. It gives the entire sequence an immediacy that has you afraid to breathe before it ends.
The middle section of the film slows down into a night of recovery and reassessment. But Hook is wading in very dangerous, shark-infested waters. Trust becomes an issue as factions begin their search once his isolated status becomes common knowledge. As is typical in films depicting the Northern Ireland troubles, there’s a disorienting fluidity in the line of separation between various factions: who can you really trust when it’s almost impossible to distinguish the sides the players are on. Hook discovers the truth of this as a fearless local teen becomes his only allay for a while.
The film counts down to an electric, tension filled search as the sides close in and Hook’s freedom becomes even more reliant on chance and the kindness of interested bystanders. Demange’s command of the various strands in highly impressive again: the cat-and-mouse manoeuvring has the same effect as the earlier riot and chase, causing sweat to break out on audience members’ palms. Though O’Connell has minimal dialogue, he’s a formidable and believable physical presence, continuing his strong work of recent times, including the lead in Unbroken (2014) as well as David Mackenzie’s superb prison film Starred Up (2014). The other components, including all the support roles and the eerily effective, tension-building score by David Holmes complete an almost flawless debut by the very promising Demange. His command of the subject matter and instinct for building and maintaining an uncomfortable, almost unbearable intensity are indicators of an enviable talent whose future work is eagerly anticipated.