War tends to find its way in movies the way a car chase, love triangle or training sequence does, as a backdrop for profound introspection (Apocalypse Now) or profound absurdity (Battleship). ’71, directed by Yann Demange, which screened at the New York Film Festival, does not concern itself with the impossibility of unraveling the politics behind violence, or implant an over-the-top action sequence, but uses the Northern Ireland conflict of the late 60’s and early 70’s as context, not base.
The Catholic/ Protestant, or even English/ Irish conflict is not covered in great detail which allows the film to construct its own sensibility: a netherworld where an English soldier sent to Belfast, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), must find trust and a way back. Houses are not homes, but bunkers for families supposedly hiding guns and trying to raise children. Bombs are the weapons of choice and children are the only ones with answers, creating a sci-fi texture to the film. This is a thriller and the plot is something you can find out about when you actually see the movie.
War, conflict (whatever you want to call killing a bunch of people) is an abyss not just of death, but of trust—who values my life? No one. Yet Demange does not attempt to make an affected statement about war, and focuses on the grey of the conflict with Gary as his sharp, contrasting center. As Gary slowly emerges through the desolate streets of Belfast he is greeted by a boy (Corey McKinley) who seems to be his only salvation. The boy struts, demanding respect as he cusses out his fellow “comrades” in a scene that could be strait out of Blade Runner.
During the Q&A after the film, Demange recalled not wanting McKinley to rehearse too much, he didn’t want an actor, but a real boy who in such a setting needs an armor of bravado to stay alive. McKinley, who Demange found at a boxing ring (he’s 9), preferred boxing to rehearsing in between scenes, and it paid off. Besides O’Connell McKinley is the most memorable actor in the film. O’Connell, who made a mark with This is England and the series Skins, recently burst into films consciousness with the prison drama Starred Up, and is about to find himself in epic American waters with Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut Unbroken. At only twenty-four years of age O’Connell has managed to create a provoking and mature persona. With a gruff low voice and edgy exterior, O’Connell brings a swagger which is unparalleled as almost every scene belongs to him and the film works because of him.
I am a bit afraid after his American debut, O’Connell will somehow loose his edge, but he comes across as smarter than the Hollywood unconsciousness. He has a lot to give us and this is only the beginning, handle with care (300: Rise of an Empire, yeah he’s in that). Although thrillers tend not to be my cup of tea, I like developed characters and layers of plot—’71 takes place in the span of 24 hours—it is still an exceptional piece mainly due to O’Connell’s masterful performance, Demange’s restrained direction and Tat Radcliffe’s stylized cinematography.
‘71 is still making the festival rounds and does not yet have a U.S. release date, but will be released in the U.K. on October 10th.
My Podcast on the film, it’s pretty horrible so listen at your own discretion.
Q&A with Yann Demange at Lincoln Center