Thursday, October 2, 2014

'71 (2014) directed by Yann Demange

Private Gary Hook is trapped deep behind enemy lines.  Hunted, chased and beaten, he's a rat in a maze, his only hope for survival to make it back to home base.  In his way lie hardened, ideologically obsessed men - all desperate to claim his scalp.  You might imagine a story like this taking place in Kabul or Fallujah: a white Western soldier vs the savage horde in a semi-sequel to Black Hawk Down. But '71 takes place entirely within the UK - Belfast , 1971, is tearing itself apart in a frenzy of sectarian violence.

From the off Yann Demange's demonstrates an admirably streamlined economy of narrative. Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) is fresh out of training and faintly uneasy about being sent to Northern Ireland for his first assignment.  Very quickly he's out on a routine patrol to uncover some weapons.  Angry crowds form at the sight of the British Army on republican streets and the pressure heats up, threatening to spill over into a full blown riot. 

Hook and another soldier are separated from the main group and abandoned in the confusion.  They're beaten by the furious crowd, then a gun emerges from the chaos and blows the other soldier's head off.  Hook runs.  By the time he stops running he's been shot at, blown up, double-crossed, strangled and stitched together without anaesthetic.  Even by Belfast's standards this is a pretty rough night out.

'71's propulsive narrative, tense chase scenes and frantic editing, combined with the short run time, combine to make a film that sometimes feels like a trip through an IRA themed amusement park ride. Hook's commander initially presents Belfast as a black and white world of good Protestant nationalists and bad Catholic republicans, areas clearly demarcated into safe and unsafe. Suspicions begin to bubble away that '71 is using the Troubles as a mere backdrop for an action film.

Thankfully the second act introduces some much needed blurring of the lines, outlining the generational disputes within the same sides, showing us the manipulations of undercover officers and how even veteran IRA commanders might find themselves protecting their ideological enemies.  This tense knot of pragmatist double-crossing vs zealous devotion to a cause reminded me a lot of James Marsh's 2012 film Shadow Dancer, which similarly probes the murkier edges of the conflict.

Demange neatly exploits the sight of British soldiers being deployed on British soil. These scenes are chilling; the rows of red brick houses, telephone boxes and familiar traffic signs could be anywhere in the UK. We can't help but empathise with the anger of the outraged residents as they're ordered off their street at gunpoint and bullied into submission.  This is effective dramatic territory, leading us down a train of thought that eventually arrives at empathy with civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan.

That Demange eventually arrives at a progressive, anti-militarist viewpoint is a relief, especially as the opening sequence, with its over-cranked footage of big n' burly sqauddies doing big n' burly things in the Brecon Beacons, looks exactly like a propagandist army recruitment campaign.  But as we progress through the film the idea of soldiering as a noble cause is slowly stripped away to reveal the rotten core of the British military; using young, poor working class bodies as human shields for upper class diabolical political manipulations.

Thus, Private Hook's journey isn't just through sectarian Belfast, it's through the veil that divides propaganda from reality.  He has his eyes forcefully opened to the way things really are and realises that he's signed up to be a protector of the weak - and ended up as a paid killer.

Jack O'Connell is on a fantastic run in 2014, staking his claim in March to being one of Britain's best young actors with a powerhouse performance in Starred Up.  Here he's not given quite as depth - his background spelled out in a pretty crap scene where we watch him cutely play football with a precocious orphan.  But O'Connell is talented enough to define the bulk of Hook's character purely through physical performance rather than exposition - you learn more about him when he's cowering in an outhouse than through any of his dialogue.

There's a hell of a lot to like in '71.  This is Demange's debut feature film and he demonstrates considerable directorial skill in an early adrenaline-fuelled chase scene that rivals Greengrass' work in the Bourne films.  He's similarly excellent at geographically defining the boundaries of the action, during a 'hide and seek' sequence in a block of flats we always know where the characters are - key to gradually notching up the tension.

With a willingness to avoid easy answers and resistance to demonising either side, '71 is very much a worthwhile watch.  It's not perfect; the Machiavellian knots these characters tie themselves into are occasionally a bit too confusing, there's the odd moment of cliché and occasionally the budgetary limitations show.  But when it's good it's really good - I eagerly await to see what Demange will do next.


'71 is released on 10 October.

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