Yann Demange’s cinematic debut takes us to the hostile streets of Belfast in 1971, in the company of young squaddie, Gary Hook (Jack O’ Connell, consolidating his impressive performance in Starred Up.) Gary and the rest of his squad are raw recruits, thrown headlong into a hellhole of sectarian violence, where danger lurks around every corner and nobody can be trusted. They are hated by everyone they encounter and unable to return fire in the most pressing circumstances. Sent out on his very first mission, Gary finds himself cut off from his companions and left to survive as best he can…
’71 isn’t going to figure high in the rankings of the Belfast tourist board but this is verité cinema, that feels absolutely authentic. The city is depicted as a brutal and deadly place and poor Gary is the sacrificial lamb, sent to the slaughter. Neither does the film paint an appealing picture of the British army. The recruits live in squalid conditions and are betrayed at every turn by their own officers. But it works best as a thriller. From the moment that Gary finds himself abandoned, the story switches into chase mode, at times generating almost unbearable tension and at others, throwing the viewers into distressing scenes of violence and mayhem – a sequence depicting the accidental bombing of a pub is bleakly brilliant, but not recommended for the faint-hearted.
Apart from the occasional uneasy shift in point of view, this is an assured debut by Demange who clearly knows how to ratchet up the tension to number eleven. One of the most effective cinematic thrill rides of recent years.