The first twenty minutes of Yann Demange’s feature directorial debut ’71 do not suggest that the film will be watchable to the very end. The camera jumps and shakes, and the close-ups and shots of the muted landscapes in Belfast in 1971 suggested that this film was going to be an experience, and not a very pleasant one.
But then, sometime after the first twenty, the atmosphere and mood become enveloping, and while the subject matter remains relatively depressing, the film becomes so engrossing and unshakeable that the style perfectly befits the form and content.
The film centers around soldier Gary Hook (star-to-be Jack O’Connell), whose unit opens the film by discovering that they are not going to be sent far off in the world, but instead, charged with keeping order nearby, in Belfast in the midst of The Troubles. After a bloody street skirmish, (which was extremely horrifying to watch, but acted almost like the turning point of the film), Hook gets separated from his unit, and O’Connell spends the majority of the film either in great pain, or escaping from even more harmful and painful episodes.
’71 makes for bleak viewing, but the experience is rewarding in innumerable ways. O’Connell’s performance is captivating, but the work by some of the actors around him is transcendent, particularly Sean Harris, young Killian Scott and Charlie Murphy, (not at all the one that you are imagining).
There is some business at the end that seems to be almost Sorkinesque, but the heart of ’71, the middle section, is some of the finest filmmaking that we will see all year.