Jack O'Connell's soldier fights for survival behind enemy lines during the Troubles in Northern Ireland
Skins alumni Jack O’Connell plays rookie Brit soldier Gary, caught behind enemy lines on the riot torn streets of Belfast at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1971. After a riot separates him from his unit he accepts the help of Protestant loyalists but their IRA rivals are on the hunt and want him dead.
Set against the backdrop of shocking bomb blasts leaving innocent children dead, and communities shattered, we go on the run with Gary as director Yann Demange utilises handheld camerawork putting us on point for a compelling cinema verite-style look at a turbulent period in our history. The attention to detail in recreating the infamous fault line of the Falls Road is breathtaking. The maze of alleyways, side streets and bombed out buildings recalls seminal protest film The Battle of Algiers. Like that film – which examined the plight of the people of Algiers fighting for independence from the French government – Demange’s ’71 is an indictment of conflict and never strays into gung-ho territory. Gary is told by a fellow soldier when he arrives in Belfast: “Posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts… That’s the army for you. They don’t care. You’re just a piece of meat!” But he’s a piece of meat desperate to survive and get back home to Derby to be a father figure to a younger brother waiting for him in a children’s home. A pulsating score from David Holmes merges mournful guitars and synthesised chord swells to draw us deeper into the abyss of one man’s struggle to survive.
Gary isn’t just caught in the crossfire he’s also on the run from corrupt undercover military police (led by the always sinister Sean Harris as Captain Browning) who close in for the kill when they realise he’s seen too much. The film reflects the real life claims that loyalist paramilitaries carried out bomb attacks with the collusion of the British government. O’Connell told the BBC he felt a strong affinity with Gary: “I was affected by the same kind of propaganda – there was a time in my life when I wanted to join the army, probably for all the wrong reasons, and now I feel that I dodged a bullet, quite literally.”
O’Connell is a star on the rise and was brilliant in prison drama Starred Up. He will be seen next in Angelina Jolie’s true-life drama Unbroken as the Olympian Louis Zamperini taken prisoner by the Japanese during WWII. His intensity drives the action here and even when the dialogue is minimal you will be hooked and believing every hard fought inch of his fight.