While the odds of seeing two truly extraordinary, brutal but brilliant British films in as many weeks are fairly long, the chances of both films starring the same relative unknown, in two similarly impressive yet fundamentally different performances, must be exponentially smaller. But we should buy a lottery ticket, because in the wake of David Mackenzie’s tremendous “Starred Up” (review here), a new film from debut feature director Yann Demange has had its world premiere here at the Berlin Film Festival. And it also places at its moral, physical and psychological center a role for Jack O’Connell, the rising star who knocked us sideways in the former film, and did it all over again here. But “‘71” is more than just a performance showcase, delivering a gripping, at times almost unbearably tense, incredibly involving anti-war statement, made the stronger for being set against the less cinematically familiar backdrop of Belfast, in the year 1971. That this notoriously thorny and treacherous territory is negotiated with real intelligence and sensitivity tells us that, if there’s any justice, it will be as much a breakout for its neophyte director as for its lead.
Gary Hook (O’Connell) is a greenhorn British soldier deployed, not to Germany as he hopes, but to Belfast, where his squad’s first engagement (backing up the police in a house search) goes horribly and violently awry. Demange’s portrayal of the escalation of the situation from mundane to murderous is as fine an evocation of the flashpoint horror of a riot, and the terrible confusion of the individuals involved, whether they’re soldiers, commanders or passersby, as we’ve seen. The camera is Greengrass-shaky as we might expect, but the sequence is edited so crisply (the editing is stellar throughout) and with such evenhandedness as to who is to blame, who is the victim and who is the first to up the ante, that it makes one of the film’s central tenets clear from the outset: there is no right “side” to be on here. In the scuffle, exacerbated by the inexperience of the posh Lieutenant (Sam Reid) whose plummy accent has earlier caused a lot of smirking from the working-class men under his nominal command, a soldier comrade is killed and Hook very narrowly flees the scene with his own life. Separated from his squadron and being hunted down by the IRA men who murdered his friend, Hook has to find his way back to his barracks, through an unfamiliar nighttime city of prowling cars and vehicle fires, whose inhabitants are starkly divided into friend and foe along lines invisible to the young soldier.
There is a great deal more plot than this, but we really don’t want to spoil even one iota of the film’s tension; suffice it to say that his colleague’s point-blank murder is only the first of an ever devolving spiral of horrors that the night holds for Hook. In fact, nighttime 1970s Belfast here takes on almost mythic resonance, especially at one point where Hook is led through its arcane alleyways by a young guide who acts, for a while, almost as Virgil to his Dante, penetrating further the various circles of Hell. In fact, the manner in which things happen, the deep, dreadful unluckiness and compressed coincidence could seem contrived, if, for one thing, we weren’t aware of the smallness of Belfast, and its interconnectedness: of course it always comes back to the same three guys, the same tedious, corrupt and corrupting internecine conflicts, the grubbing for power, the destruction of innocence, all in the name of a cause.
But more importantly, it’s the tone of the film that allows for a certain degree of narrative convenience. Demange and screenwriter Gregory Burke walk the line between realism and metaphor so well that the story feels utterly authentic to its claustrophobic setting, and yet broader, more sweeping, more universal too. And in the film’s most impressive moments, the two strands conflate to the point of sublimation—following a particularly gruesome and devastating incident, for example, we spend some minutes woozily following Hook as, wordless and in deepest shock, he reels away, and as the David Holmes score pulsates and twangs around him it’s impossible not to feel his disorientation, his vulnerability and his, well, youth. Hook, we already know, has not had an easy life to date (the introduction has shown him playing football with his beloved younger brother who appears to be in some kind of institutionalized care home, as was he), but the things he experiences on this one night are scarring his soul, and with such an intense and committed performance from O’Connell, the process of this scarring is unbelievably affecting to watch. Is “gritty impressionism” a thing? It should be, after this.
There are small issues that in the grand scheme of things don’t seem too important: the film ends rather too many times, and we’re actually not certain that we even need the bookending with Hook’s younger brother—in the context of a performance that is so strong in the moment, it almost feels like overkill to give us any shortcuts at all to sympathy there. But almost everything else is note-perfect, and not simply clever, but brave. This is a film that has the confidence to reduce one of the most intractable conflicts in recent memory to a few key individuals, who are both believable characters, but are also representations–of the old guard IRA, of the younger “Provos,” of the loyalist partisans, of the corrupt police and the entrenched, enfeebled military—and the intelligence to carry it off. It conjures powerfully a dehumanized world in which your accent could get you killed, and saving someone’s life—the wrong person’s—can lose you yours. And while it does not overload us with historical context, it also does not skirt its issues. Instead it explodes them to reveal a deeper, wider truth: in conflict (memorably described at one point as “posh cunts telling thick cunts to shoot poor cunts”) people lose not only their lives, but their souls. It is a mark of real brilliance that when we drew our first shaky breath after “‘71” ended, we felt in every nerve the awful tragedy of both. [A-]