On the Silver Screen – ’71
Former Skins star Jack O’Connell stars as Gary Hook in ’71, an action thriller set during “The Troubles” in Belfast in 1971. Much of the story involves Gary separated from his unit following a riot and is stranded behind enemy lines alone and unsure who to trust.
In terms of historical fiction this is something that might be far rawer than some others given how recent it is and how close to home it is for us in the UK. In the film’s early moments the soldiers are urged to think of this mission as taking place somewhere far away, presumably in an attempt to give them emotional distance from what they’re been ordered to do. The film does a good job of showing the streets of Belfast as being a destroyed Warzone. In general no punches are pulled in showing the visceral terror that Gary has to deal with at every turn.
The tension in this film is fantastic, there’s huge urgency to every step Gary takes as he -and the audience- have no idea if his next breath will be his last given how out of his depth he is in this situation. O’Connell’s performance conveys this beautifully as he is clearly unprepared for what he is actually in the middle of here. There are some really good moments where his bravado as a soldier completely falls away and he shows a lot of emotional vulnerability. No attempt is made to establish him as a tough guy completely able to handle the situation. He does much of this silently using his facial expressions and body language to present the emotional meat of the movie. It really is a performance to be celebrated that he can do so much by saying so little. The character development is subtle and gradual with Gary starting the film as an almost naive soldier with duty on his mind and ends the film as essentially a broken shell of the man he was before entering the situation.
Throughout the narrative the viewer is kept guessing as to what will happen next. Every time Gary encounters another person it could go either way whether they will help him or not. The pacing of the film is frenetic and little time is allowed for the audience to catch their breath. We are definitely brought into the visceral truth of Gary’s situation and see everything through his perspective. Different sides to humanity are wonderfully explored here with a showcase of people at their most brutal as well as their most gentle. Some of the examples of human kindness given in this film are deeply moving and show the different sides of the conflict over in Belfast. I was glad that the subject was treated with as much complexity as the reality of the situation. Of course not everyone was responsible for what was going on and there were people willing to risk everything to simply help another human being. This kind of depth in a film like this is fairly rare and I liked that nobody came across as entirely blameless.
Gregory Burke’s screenplay does a great job of showing these different aspects without beating the audience over the head with the message, the story is relatively simple but the events speak for themselves. Moments of humour are found without disrupting the tone. Highlights include a young foul mouthed kid who is far too young to be so savvy in the middle of this conflict as well as too young to be using such language. Another funny moment is questioning how someone will wake up in the morning after their alarm clock has been used to make a bomb. It’s very dark humour but effectively used nonetheless. Yann Demange’s direction helps greatly with bringing these moments to life in a visually stunning way. The destruction surrounds every part of the setting and much of the lighting comes from fires caused by petrol bombs or other explosions.
Some aspects of the film came across as a little heavy handed and at times I felt that it was going out of its way to make me shock. A scene in an Irish pub comes to mind that I won’t spoil but when you see it you’ll likely see what I mean. I understand that the film attempts to show the truth of the situation by showing how insanely brutal things would get but I felt that the message was clear without such moments
A visceral and moving action thriller that is historically very honest. A powerhouse performance from Jack O’Connell perfectly conveys all of the terror being felt by Gary Hook as he fights for his life behind enemy lines. The film is wonderfully tense with some fantastic displays of human kindness contrasted with displays of human brutality. There were moments where I felt that too much effort was being made to shock the audience but it is such a minor issue in an otherwise great film.