It seems fair to say that, between the likes of Jonathan Glazer, Stephen Knight and the many other rising talents that this year has so far showcased, 2014 is turning out to be a truly incredible year for British cinema. From low-key dramas to crazed sci-fi adventures, Britain is putting itself firmly on the cultural map, and ’71 is definitely no exception. Former-TV talent Yann Demange bridges the gap into film with a fierce, blistering war drama that takes precisely zero prisoners.
Named for its period setting, ’71 finds Derby-born British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) shipped off to Belfast on a peace-keeping mission at the height of the religious troubles. However, as expected, things take a deadly and frantic turn when a riot breaks out during a standard house-raid. Amongst all the commotion, Hook is left behind by his fleeing unit. Alone, injured and with little knowledge of his surroundings, the young private is forced to gradually feel his way back through the violent streets and tower-blocks of arguably the most dangerous place in Britain to find his barracks and reach safety.
With a plot as dark, ambitious and ripe with potential as this, one wouldn’t be mistaken for assuming that the talent involved would have considerable experience under their belt. To attempt something this audacious, one would almost have to; and yet, for director Demange, this is his debut feature. Despite a handful of TV projects, this is very much his trial by fire, and yet, in all honesty, one would never notice.
Demange has created something so incredibly sleek and well-honed that potentially damaging elements such as the film’s historical setting, are seamlessly stitched into the background without question. Scenes of dramatic action are approached patiently and with a level-head, built up to with waves of masterful tension and executed in sharp, vicious sequences. Nothing is trimmed to pieces by fast-cut editing and nothing is shied away from; Demange meets the reality of every situation head-on and with a firm unwavering hand. This is the work of a seasoned pro, bursting from the fresh-face of an upcoming talent.
Relative newcomer Jack O’Connell lands his second lead performance of the year, following David Mackenzie’s Starred Up (and soon, Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken) marking a career trajectory destined for stardom. Usually known for his more laddish and abrasive TV roles, ’71 finds O’Connell nearly mute; it’s a performance that bleeds almost entirely from his body language and facial movements, a tricky feat but one that he masters straight from the off. O’Connell’s Hook is subtly brought to life as a tortured soul, thrust into the military with little clue about his future. For a film so structured towards action and violence in its plotting, Demange is careful to allow Hook room to breathe and develop as a character, twisting him into a flawed and realistic hero that’s incredibly easy to root for. A well-selected supporting cast build this further, but O’Connell’s performance alone is truly a tour-de-force.
Even as the film’s story begins to open itself up wider, ’71 never once leaves its grounded tone, Demange demanding realism at almost every stage. Rarely does any narrative turn lose sight of the director’s mission, and on the few occasions it does, by either slowing the film’s pace or expanding its character-base too wide, Demange corrects himself almost immediately. As a brutal and challenging piece of British cinema, ’71 is amongst the best in recent years. But as a debut feature, this is a seriously stunning and unparalleled accomplishment, that ensures that Yann Demange is a name that should remain permanently on every filmgoers lips for years to come.
’71, directed by Yann Demange, is showing as part of the BFI London Film Festival on 9 & 10 October. Tickets are available from whatson.bfi.org.uk. Watch the trailer below.