Over the past few years, Jack O’Connell has proved himself one of Britain’s most unnerving screen presences. From a teenage thug-in-the-making in Shane Meadows’ This Is England, to the banal face of preening, petrifying evil in hoodie horror Eden Lake, to an institutionalised killer in prison drama Starred Up, he’s cornered the market in sneering psychopaths.
Yann Demange’s debut, a pulse-quickening survival thriller, marks a breakthrough for both actor and director. Frankly, it’s a relief to see something where O’Connell’s not the main agent of mischief, although he still manages to kick up sparks while the pyrotechnics explode around him.
Set during the Northern Irish Troubles, ’71 plonks O’Connell’s British army recruit, alone and broken, in the middle of war-torn Belfast when a routine patrol goes horribly (but, you imagine, routinely) wrong. The in-fighting provides a turbulent backdrop to Gary’s plight, as he’s helped and hindered by Catholics and Protestants (including mini O’Connell-in-the-making Corey McKinley) trapped in a conflict he doesn’t even begin to comprehend. Viewers might feel the same, but whenever things get too muddled, reptilian military intelligence agent Sean Harris is on hand to remind us who the real bad guys are.
Reducing political debate to the mechanics of genre cinema could have been dangerous, but Gregory Burke’s script is sensitive to all sides even as it races to the next setpiece and Demange shows a real flair for sudden, surging action. As for O’Connell: keep your eyes on this guy. As if you could look away.
’71’ Movie Times