“Fleshed-out characters” is a concept invoked all the time in film reviews, and not always with good reason. We need detail and complexity in our protagonists, it suggests, like humans need meat on the bone, because how can we feel concerned for them otherwise? Empathy isn’t always done with a beef-up of plot material, though, and nothing speaks to that better than watching the lean hero of Yann Demange’s debut feature ’71. Jack O’Connell (Starred Up) might be playing a British soldier with a name, rank and meagre family to look after – Gary Hook, private and an infant brother, for the record – but none of those manifest like the moment-to-moment purpose he finds in fleeing from IRA radicals in Troubles-era Belfast. O’Connell’s military experience works wonders as he channels fear, hope and shades between through even the simplest perambulations. Crucially, we get this not because of some leaden exposition, but because of the structure and aesthetic Demange and writer Gregory Burke have found to complement it. Despite inviting superficial comparisons to Bourne, they hearken back via the period setting to simpler questions: can those around you see your face, and what happens to you if they do?
The film wastes no time establishing the confrontations that follow. After throwing Hook and his comrades from the safe and detached training camp into the unrest of Northern Ireland – first glimpsed through a square back window of their truck, as though they’re about to be pulled into a horror film they themselves are watching – he gets almost instantly separated from the regiment after a confrontation with angry citizens, who are throwing bricks and demanding they go back where they came from. After a breathless chase into enemy territory, the action splinters from Hook to other parties caught up in the conflict, not all of which are on his side. While the search by a pair of undercover UK agents and Hook’s naive lieutenant (Sam Reid) is interesting, moreso are the people having to get by within the warzone – the disarmingly young loyalist (Corey McKinley) leading Hook through the back streets, the resourceful father and daughter (Richard Dormer, Charlie Murphy) who take him in for physical treatment, and most frightening of all, the young-buck IRA fighters with as much vitality and desperation as him. The multiple parties cross paths in natural ways that never break the layered sense of time and place.
It’s that range of perspective that affords us the bare bones character roles and, on a broader level, avoids the film having to side with a party in the battle. Reid’s presence is important to this, because while he has less screen time than most of the cast, he carries a kind but wet disposition that lacks the initiative that might help his troupe get through the day as one unit. The IRA have similar issues, with hotheaded youths doing more to scramble the cause than unite it, despite the best efforts of an intermediary (David Wilmot) to find concessions that will keep them alive. One activist in particular, played by Barry Keoghan, sticks out in the opening riot scene with his chillingly passive face, and goes on to embody the alienation and doubt that leaves his “side” open to collapse. Personal dilemmas effect the fragile systems at play and vice versa, in a way that’s incredibly unique to the setting, and yet still has aspects that echo modern-day military discourse. “A confused event” is a recurring phrase in the dialogue, which is an ingeniously bland catch-all that you’d almost expect to see in Benghazi hearing transcripts.1 Here, it causes the resolution to land like a gut punch, since it’s truthful enough to excuse too much of what has taken place. The confusion is still rooted in a bygone era, though – missing are the invisible bogey-men of modern-day thrillers, and in place lies the wit and brawn of the foot soldiers of competing ideologies, building bombs, circling estate flats and being dressed like they might return to humble lives tomorrow.
Such deft work is fitting for the talent on hand. Demange comes from the world of TV, his best known credit is Dead Set, a Charlie Brooker-scripted zombie series that’s far more haunting than its satirical premise would suggest.2 The character interactions that wrangled heart and soul out of Brooker’s screed is what flowers all over the brutish world of ’71, along with the same visual touch given by cinematographer Tat Ratcliffe, Damange’s ongoing collaborator. What really elevates their work, though, is the arrival of David Holmes. While a veteran of other impressive productions like the Ocean’s series, he works here in amazing reverence to his home town of Belfast, crafting both heart-pounding percussive beats and wistful guitar melodies that give the sprawling events on the screen a cohesive identity.
More than just an amazing calling card of Damange’s film-making credentials, ’71 shows him to be an artist with a unique point of view to fit his particular choice of collaborators. Aside from tweaking the most traditional themes of war films, he fixates on moments lesser directors would gloss over, and not just just the clear-cut tension relievers like a back-and-forth between O’Connell and Murphy on David Bowie. He seems less interested in the content of action beats (beautifully staged though they are) than he is in their aftermath; the lingering, seen and felt qualities of these moments, rather than what has been explicitly explained about it to us. A moment of post-chase calm has Hook not just catching his breath, but weeping with terror in a toilet cubicle for a disarmingly long spell. Elsewhere, a major disruption within the Belfast hideaways is blaringly telegraphed to us, but the lack of surprise in the moment is slowly replaced by a long take that dwells for minutes on the damage been wrought, both around Hook and on him. In the transformatively brutal world of ’71, the significance of events hinges on the act of seeing, which the characters’ ideological stances, much like our own presuppositions about cinema, can make all the more needlessly complicated.