Director Yann Demange takes his first steps into filmmaking with his astounding debut ’71. The film examines the brutality and violence that became commonplace in Belfast at the height of the Troubles in 1971. However, Demange focuses less on the politics behind the conflict, but instead on the people trapped in this desperate and horrific situation.
The film centres on terrified new recruit Gary Hook as he is hunted by IRA gunmen through the narrow back alleys and housing estates of west Belfast after being separated from his unit. Jack O’Connell is brilliant as Hook and, although ‘71 is listed as an action film, he is by no means a standard action hero. Hook is entirely at the mercy of his pursuers, the alien culture and his own overwhelming emotions. This is never more evident as when we watch Hook break down in tears as he comes to terms with the fact that, although he’s still in the same country, he’s not home.
Although O’Connell is the focus of the film, the superb performances of his co-stars really bring it to life. One of the most fascinating characters is Barry Keoghan’s Sean, a teenage wannabe IRA gunman whose initiation demands that he murder a British soldier. Gregory Burke’s solid script ensures that no character is a stereotype; each one is three dimensional with their own motivations and inner struggles to deal with throughout the film.
All that said ‘71s greatest achievement is its genuine portrayal of Belfast itself and Northern Irish culture. Demange has clearly researched every detail from the red bricked estates to the sectarian fault lines of west Belfast allowing the audience to be fully immersed. And hearing the accents of real Northern Irish actors is a refreshing change from the appalling sing-song voices common in American films.
Demange may be a relatively unknown director but he has an unbelievable mastery of the craft and Burkes ability to create an exciting action film while emphasising the personal trials of those involved is just brilliant. To finish I’ll say this, ’71 gives such an uncompromising portrayal of the Troubles that never have I been more amazed and ashamed of my own country. And I applaud Demange for that.