THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!
'71, is the fictional story of a British soldier separated from his unit during a riot in the Catholic area of Belfast in the occupied six counties in the north of Ireland during the height of "the Troubles" in 1971. The film stars Jack O'Connell as the aforementioned abandoned British soldier Gary Hook, who must figure out a way to survive the night and escape the Catholic nationalist area of the city and make it back to his barracks. '71 is written by Gregory Burke and is the feature film directorial debut of Yann Demange.
'71 is a very rare film indeed. It is original and unique in that it is, basically, an action film, set in a historical context, that is not only compelling to watch but interesting and smart too. The credit goes to director Demange for balancing the taut action of the film with the ambition of the plot. Demange skillfully makes every chase visually imperative even while he pushes and pulls with the pace of those scenes. In the faster chases, Demange uses a claustrophobic sense of setting and a loose yet specific framing to heighten the very palpable tension. In contrast, in slower "chases" he uses the setting to full advantage, and turns a physical chase into a mental one. Demange also shines in the riot scene which is the catalyst for the rest of the story. The scene is heightened, the tension and chaos so tangible, that it is viscerally jarring and completely dramatically captivating.
Jack O'Connell is an actor I am not familiar with. I know he starred in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken last year, which I did not see, and from what I hear I was fortunate to miss it. I had no expectations, good or bad, for O'Connell as an actor going into '71. I will say this, this kid has movie star written all over him, and '71 was a perfect vehicle for his unmistakable charisma. O'Connell never hits a false note as Gary Hook. He never even slightly loses the imperative of his struggle to survive, all the while maintaining a genuine, touching and wounded humanity. While O'Connell's obvious dynamic physicality is what will get him cast in films, it is his internal and emotional fragility which will make him a star. There is a sort of early Mel Gibson vibe to O'Connell, and I mean that as a compliment. Early Mel Gibson, in films like Mad Max, Galipoli, A Year of Living Dangerously, was a magnetic actor, who was both compelling and combustible on screen, O'Connell has a similar energy about him.
O'Connell's performance certainly propels '71 to its heights, but the entire supporting cast does spectacularly solid work. Richard Dormer and Charlie Murphy, in particular, do exemplary work as a Catholic father and daughter, as does Sean Harris as the enigmatic Captain Sandy Browning.
The script by Gregory Burke is also to be lauded. Burke does an excellent job of constantly keeping the viewer guessing and always stays one step ahead. "The Troubles" can be troubling when you see them in Manichean terms, which is always a dramatic temptation. Burke wisely and skillfully shows "The Troubles" as the moral tangled web that they are, and that they only become more tangled the deeper you look into them. Burke's script perfectly captures the sense that nothing is what it seems in Belfast in 1971.
In conclusion, '71 is a very pleasant surprise of a movie. It is an extremely well made, well acted, well written and intelligently entertaining film. Jack O'Connell and Yann Demange, O'Connell in particular (if he can make the right film choices), both have the potential for very bright futures ahead of them. After their stellar display in '71, I look forward to seeing what both of them can do in the years to come.