The Troubles (the violent Northern Ireland conflict between Catholics and Protestants) are defined by a moral and political complexity that’s difficult to successfully convey on film. Many of the movies that have succeeded in portraying the era – In the Name of the Father, The Outsider, Good Vibrations – avoid the problems of presenting either ‘side’ as superior by presenting conflicted characters either torn between sides or trying to stay out of the conflict altogether.
’71, set in the Belfast riots of 1971 (surprise), chooses as its conflicted protagonist Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell). Hook is a barely-trained English soldier played by Jack O’Connell who’s left stranded on the “frontline” of the conflict after his squad, accompanying a police raid, is driven from the neighbourhood by a rock-toting mob. The English are there to support the loyalist Protestants, but Hook’s reaction to the cops’ brutal ‘interrogation’ of Catholic locals – dragging them into the street and beating them with batons – makes it clear that his loyalty is less clear-cut.
Hook becomes the epicentre of the fractured factions of battle-scarred Belfast, where even Catholics, Protestant and soldiers are splintered into groups with their own agendas, from the younger Catholic radicals fighting for supremacy over the older authoritarians to the Good Samaritans clashing with bloodthirsty militants. Instead of a good guy stranded amongst bad guys – à la The Raid or Black Hawk Down – we’re presented with a city of predominantly good people trapped in a cycle of revenge and dominated by a small number of very bad people on both sides. At one point one of those bad people assures another, “It’s alright. The situation’s under control.” But of course, it isn’t. It never was.
Yann Demange, directing his debut feature after extensive television experience, convincingly captures the chaos and mounting tension of the situation. The techniques he uses aren’t anything revolutionary, but they are consistently effective. The film’s rough-edged, murky cinematography – reminiscent of The Wire – makes deft use of handheld to convey the subjective experience of its characters. During a breathless foot chase, the camera swings around with a turbulent velocity that puts you in Hook’s disorientated, frightened headspace. After an explosion, the camera swerves about and sways in and out of focus drunkenly; not an original technique, but executed with queasy potency.
Let’s talk about Jack O’Connell. His ascent from Skins to the A-list seems practically instantaneous over this side of the pond, largely thanks to this, Starred Up and – soon – Unbroken arriving on our shores in the same couple of months. I wasn’t especially enamoured of his work on Skins; I felt he captured the hair-trigger volatility of his character but I was never sold on how irresistible everyone found Cook. His charisma seemed, from my perspective, to be entirely relegated to the screenplay.
After seeing his performances here and in Starred Up, I may have to re-evaluate my knee-jerk assessment of him as an actor (though I’m sure as hell not going to revisit Skins, thank you very much). The two roles are poles apart. His Starred Up inmate was one wrong word or look away from brutal violence while ‘71’s Hook is a fundamentally reluctant soldier; you sense how deeply the one act of violence he performs in the film devastates him. But in each film his work is characterised by a deeply felt, convincing physicality; he doesn’t say a whole lot in either film, but he inhabits these distinct characters in a way that feels utterly real. After seeing these two films pretty much back-to-back, I’m eager to see what he can achieve in Unbroken.