Towards the end of Yann Demange’s excellent thriller, ‘71, a Commanding Officer deadpans that ‘the Army takes care of its own’. You wouldn’t know so, having watched the story of young English Private, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), left behind in 1971 Belfast thanks to a blundering Lieutenant, a riot and some very nasty Catholic separatists. The result is a night of unrelenting tension and violence as Gary attempts to survive the squads out hunting for him whilst a less than trustworthy undercover unit is assigned to find him. As a piece of action cinema, it is fantastic, made all the more exceptional by the fact that it is the first film by the director Demange.
To make the most obvious point, Demange can really do tension. From start to finish, ’71 is absolutely gripping, brilliantly paced and so effective at keeping you on the edge of your seat that you almost forget how exciting it is, until everything calms down and you remember what breathing normally is like. Violence is used judiciously, always realistic but never overtly shocking and never to distract from the central narrative. More refreshingly, for me at least, is that whilst ’71 is a war film, it never falls back on the hackneyed technique of having to spell out to the audience that war is a Bad Thing. It takes that fact for granted and instead of devoting precious minutes trying to get a message across, Demange and his screenwriter Gregory Burke craft terrific set-pieces, supported by really great sound design, a particular stand out being a foot chase as the disarmed Hook escapes two of the leading IRA gunmen (played by Killian Scott and Martin McCann). The quieter moments are equally as convincing, presenting a community in that’s been left in tatters, although never utterly desperate, retaining their empathy even through the chaos around them.
In order to sell the more emotional parts of a war film, one needs actors who can do more than just mere pathos, and Jack O’Connell is utterly outstanding, important, given that he is very rarely off screen. One of the most exciting British talents of the moment, he conveys the confusion, fear and pain of an ill-educated soldier, losing a fight far away from home. The rest of the cast are also very good, although none match up to the leading man and the Irish actors definitely outshine their English counterparts.
This disparity speaks to the film’s biggest flaw, however. Whilst everything focused on Hook is outstanding, the Shady Undercover Guys (their leader played by the perpetually scowling Sean Harris) are too obviously villainous. There are twists in the story involving these guys, which I shan’t spoil here, but they never particularly come as a surprise, an unfortunate flaw that saps some of the tension whenever they’re involved. The Irish antagonists are far more convincing, helped by the fact that they aren’t really bad guys, just members of the community who have picked a side in a bitter conflict. You fear them, but you never really dislike them, a great trick that absolutely puts the audience in the shoes of Gary Hook.
For all of these reasons, ’71 is one of, if not the, best thrillers of the year. It’s intense without being gratuitous, superbly paced and anchored by a superb lead performance. If there were just slightly less obvious villainy, then it would be a major contender for the best film of 2014, which is made even more impressive by the fact that it’s the debut work of a highly promising director.