A Review Yann Demange’s ’71: Taut, Compelling, and Nuanced

'71 review jack o'connell

Film: ’71
Director: Yann Demange
Primary Cast: Jack O’Connell, Sam Reid, Sean Harris, Killian Scott, Martin McCann, David Wilmot
U.S. Release Date: 27 February 2015

’71: One Dangerous Night in Belfast
Gary Hook (O’Connell) is an English solider who is sent to Belfast during The Troubles (a year or so before 1972’s Bloody Sunday). During his unit’s first mission there, a riot ensues, which the soldiers are wholly unable to contain. During the chaos, Hook and another British soldier (who is soon killed) are accidentally abandoned by the rest of their unit. Hook is then pursued by two IRA members who are determined to kill him. He escapes them, only to find himself trapped and alone in enemy territory. The majority of the film concerns itself with Hook’s efforts to get back to his barracks alive. Along the way, he is assisted and assailed by various residents of the city. ’71 also supplement’s its depiction of Hook’s struggles with interactions and conflicts between the IRA and the MRF.

Though it suffers a few tonal missteps along the way, ’71 is a tense and engaging thriller that succeeds both as an action film and as an exploration of war. The film does a good job of navigating moral gray areas, is a fine showcase for Jack O’Connell’s abilities, and is promising feature debut from director Yann Demange. 

A Certain Refusal to Take Sides
While ’71 is set in a deeply divided city and can quite easily be called a “war film,” it does not go out of its way to take sides. In fact, if the movie takes any sides at all, perhaps it is that of the individual (as opposed to that of the English military, Catholicism, Protestantism, the IRA, or anything else). This is surely one of the film’s strengths. Where a lesser filmmaker may have sought to paint one side of the conflict as having a more righteous cause then the others, Demange refrains from doing so.

In the film, characters on every side of the aisle are human and as such are as capable of heroism as they are of horrors. By opting for a more nuanced and level-headed portrayal of its subject matter (rather than an overly sentimental or simplistic one), the film trusts viewers to draw their own moral conclusions and demonstrates much-welcomed sense of maturity.

While viewers will sympathize most strongly with Hook and will certainly hope for him to survive, this has less to do with the fact that he is English or a soldier than it does with the fact that he’s the character that the film itself just happens to be most interested in presenting. Hook’s precarious and somewhat unusual position as a lone solider trapped in city that is not his own also provides the film with a means by which it can explore the complex situation in Ireland from various angles all at once, which helps the film avoid any trivialization of war or of Ireland’s history.

71 is (for the most part) an action thriller, but there is something cynical and distant underscoring much of the drama. This quality helps keeps the film grounded in the realm of reality while undermining any attempts to find any moral absolutism in the whole affair.

Moreover, it is when the film embraces it’s more cynical and/or distant sides most fully that it is at its strongest. It’s those moments in which Demange displays a certain sentimentality or goes out of his way to craft melodrama that the film suffers most. 

Performances
Though it features few faces that most casual American moviegoers will recognize, ’71 is a well-acted film all the same. It has a somewhat extensive supporting cast, and most of the actors involved do a good job with the material that they are given. As it’s star, O’Connell (of Unbroken and Starred Up), mixes a certain every-man-vulnerability with an unmistakable resilience. As Hook, O’Connell evokes sympathy and remains more or less engaging (even though he doesn’t say much), and it’s easy to why so many have been praising his potential as of late.

Camerawork
In terms of how it’s shot, ’71 is not a film that anyone would call “slick.” Rather, much of the camerawork in the film is what one might call “kinetic” or even “frenzied,” and there is a great deal of shaky cam to go around. While this type of camerawork works well in certain action-driven moments (the riot and initial chase scenes come to mind), it is overused to a certain degree.

In some of the film’s quieter moments, the overuse of shaky cam (and of some seemingly accidental zooming in and out) detracts from the emotional and dramatic qualities of film. In fact, there were moments when I found myself noticeably distracted by the camera movements. Given ’71‘s subject matter, I understand why the filmmakers may have thought that all the shaky cam was a good idea, but I wish that they had reconsidered, as it ends up feeling more contrived (and is less elegant) than would be ideal.

An Ending that Doesn’t Quite Cut it
While the majority of ’71 really is quite gripping, the ending is weaker than most of what precedes it. In the film, the drama in Belfast is framed by scenes of Hook interacting with his kid brother in England. This part of the story is not developed enough to leave much of an impact and, after over an hour of dark, suspenseful, and even devastating scenes, ’71‘s final moments come across as a bit of a letdown.

Until Next Time
I’m sorry that this post took so long. As I indicated in my It Follows review, I won’t be posting as frequently as I would like for the next few weeks and/or months. I’m working more often than usual lately, and I also need to try to find time to study for and take the GRE. Things will return to normal soon enough; thanks for putting up with me in the meantime and thank you so much for reading. Feel free to share any thoughts you have on ’71 by leaving a comment below.

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