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Odd Man Out

71-movie-review-jack-oconnell
Studiocanal

MOVIE REVIEW
'71 (2014)

The most unusual thing about this thriller is that it exists at all. The situation in Northern Ireland was so tense, fraught and full of horror that an accurate, clear-sighted telling of it has been almost impossible to do. Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” — which many critics loved but this one loathed, did open the doors for a more visceral type of discussion about the Troubles — in the focus on the minds and bodies instead of the politics of the relevant people. Written by a Scot (Gregory Burke), funded with British money and directed by a French-Algerian (Yann Demange), “ ’71” has no apparent interest in sectarian propaganda of any kind. Any of these things is extremely unusual; but the combination is, until now, unheard of. And the result is one of the sharpest British movies in some time.

In 1971, a British Army force that believes it is training for deployment to West Germany is given very short notice that they are being deployed onto the streets of Belfast. After only two days on the ground, this unit is sent into a Catholic neighborhood to help the police search some houses for guns. Things swiftly go wrong and an angry crowd of civilians gathers; in the melee a child steals a gun. Two soldiers are sent to retrieve the weapon and are separated from the others. A woman tries to protect them; but one of the soldiers is shot in the head by an I.R.A. — the main Catholic paramilitary — foot soldier. The other, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), runs for his life. The rest of the movie shows how he attempts to stay alive.

Swirling around young Hook are quite a few people who do not wish him well. There are two rival factions within the I.R.A., one run by the younger, angrier Quinn (Killian Scott) and the other by the more pragmatic Boyle (David Wilmot), who are openly out for blood. There are some Ulster Volunteer Force (one of the Protestant paramilitaries) terrorists, run by Fullerton (Barry Barnes). And there are the British army plainclothesmen such as Lewis (Paul Anderson) and Browning (Sean Harris) whose involvement in the entire mess is not all that it seems.

Hook also has a few pieces of luck, such as former medic Eamon (Richard Dormer) and his daughter Brigid (Charlie Murphy), who provide assistance that they know is tantamount to suicide. There are also the children Hook encounters, such as the young Protestant lad (Corey McKinley) thrilled to meet a genuine British soldier and willing to blackmail armed men in order to assist, and Sean (Barry Keoghan), a silent young I.R.A. recruit who is learning the consequences of his choices.

Listed like this, the movie is complicated and overlapping; but the casting is so sharp and convincing that it’s easy to keep the different characters straight. The complex scenarios involved are accurate in their complicated swirl of motives the different people have for hunting down Hook and whether or not they really wish to return him to safety. The fear and terror that was just an average day in Belfast at this time is depicted with an accurate, horrible lightness of touch. For example, in those days in this place it was perfectly normal to turn a corner on a residential street and see a hijacked bus on fire. When Hook and Brigid discuss David Bowie as he is bleeding in her bed, we are reminded these are young people living anything but an average and normal life.

The cinematography by Tat Radcliffe is clever and subtle, moving with the action but also knowing the importance of standing still when needed — especially towards the end. David Holmes, who grew up in Belfast and worked regularly with Steven Soderbergh, did the music. Mr. Demange’s only false step is to add an unnecessary few minutes at the end, past the point where Hook’s story is wrapped up. In this frightening and messy story — where evil happens in crowded houses with babies on laps or in the back rooms of quiet pubs on rainy streets — to pretend that a happy ending is possible seems like the darkest possible result. The moments of hope Mr. Demange provides instead are possibly his only wrong steps.

’71

Opens on Oct. 10 in Britain and on Feb. 27, 2015 in the United States

Directed by Yann Demange; written by Gregory Burke; director of photography, Tat Radcliffe; edited by Chris Wyatt; music by David Holmes; production design by Chris Oddy; costumes by Jane Petrie; produced by Angus Lamont and Robin Gutch; released by Studiocanal (Britain) and Roadside Attractions (United States). Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes. This film is rated 15 by B.B.F.C. and R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Jack O’Connell (Gary Hook), Paul Anderson (Sgt. Leslie Lewis), Richard Dormer (Eamon), Sean Harris (Capt. Sandy Browning), Martin McCann (Paul Haggerty), Charlie Murphy (Brigid), Sam Reid (Lieutenant Armitage), Killian Scott (Quinn), Harry Verity (Darren) and David Wilmot (Boyle).

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