Angelina Jolie outlines her credentials as a serious director with this harrowing Prisoner of War drama

Directed by Angelina Jolie and based on a best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken tells the genuinely incredible true survival story of former Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini. After his fighter plane crashes in the Pacific during World War One, Italian-American Zamperini (former Skins star Jack O’Connell) clings onto a life raft for 47 days before being captured by the Japanese enemy, who subject him to two-and-a-half years of brutal abuse in several Prisoner of War camps. None of Zamperini’s fellow prisoners (who include Attack the Block‘s Luke Treadaway, Divergent‘s Jai Courtney and On the Road‘s Garrett Hedlund) is given an easy ride: upon arrival, a malevolent senior prison guard known as ‘The Bird’ (impressive Japanese actor Miyavi) tells them they are enemies of Japan and will be treated accordingly. But as this powerful drama progresses, O’Connell’s Zamperini is repeatedly singled out for the most gruesome abuse because, in a twisted way, ‘The Bird’ admires his breathtaking resilience and wants to test him.

In only her second feature-length effort behind the camera (following 2011’s Bosnian war love story In the Land of Blood and Honey), Jolie outlines her credentials as a serious and seriously talented director. Unbroken requires her to steer a disparate series of scenes – from frantic shots of fighter planes engaged in combat, to relatively tranquil vistas of Zamperini’s life raft bobbing on the ocean – while holding our attention over an expansive 137 minutes. Though some of the life raft scenes are perhaps slightly less gripping than those set in the Prisoner of War camps, Unbroken never really drags, and Jolie only betrays her inexperience by reaching for some clichéd imagery during one of the film’s wince-inducing torture sequences. When ‘The Bird’ makes Zamperini hold a heavy wooden beam above his head to prove his strength and endurance, Jolie can’t resist casting the prisoner in silhouette so that momentarily, he looks a bit like Jesus on the cross. It’s the only time the director really over-eggs the pudding.

Alongside Jolie, Unbroken‘s other revelation is O’Connell, who captures all of Zamperini’s mettle and also makes him totally emotionally engaging: even when the prisoner’s strong-willed behaviour crosses over into petulance and he seems to be playing into ‘The Bird’s hands, O’Connell has us rooting him. This is a harrowing and haunting film that leaves you feeling grateful to be alive.