FILM REVIEW: A real thriller with a powerhouse central performance

Jack O'Connell in '71.
Jack O'Connell in '71.

’71 (15), starring Jack O’Connell, screens at Alnwick Playhouse, Tuesday, February 3, 7.30pm.

In an age of wars in the Middle East and media obsession with Islamic militants, this edge-of-the-seat thriller reminds us of a time when the threats were found closer to home.

As the title suggests, Yann Demange’s film is set in 1971 when the sectarian Troubles in Northern Ireland were reaching their height. The year opened with a week of serious rioting in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, and continued with a mounting campaign of bombings and attacks on the British Army by the Provisional IRA. In February, the first British soldier died, shot by the IRA in north Belfast.

The plot focuses on a young British recruit Gary (O’Connell), who forms part of a raw and seemingly unprepared unit shipped out to Belfast as the security situation deteriorates.

With a relatively tight running time by modern standards (99 minutes), there is a brief introduction and build-up, but Gary very quickly finds himself ‘behind enemy lines’, abandoned by his unit, having seen one of his colleagues killed right in front of him.

From there, Gary battles to make it through the night and survive in the mazy streets around the Falls Road and the Shankhill, not knowing who to trust from a rotating cast of Catholics, Protestants and undercover British operatives.

This is what you call a real thriller – not a Hollywood ‘man v thousands of baddies’ plot – which is almost unbearably tense at times and with barely a moment’s let-up in the action and, more impressively, the atmosphere of anxiety.

Jack O’Connell, first seen on British screens as a Jack-the-lad character in the E4 teen drama Skins, is now proving to be a go-to leading man, with this release followed by his starring role in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken.

He is superb in this film, his face portraying the right mixture of fear, naïveté, cockiness and bewilderment at the situation he finds himself in – there is no overt political comment in this film about the Troubles, with grey morals on all sides, but if there is any, it’s about the Army’s use of young working-class lads.