Wesley Emblidge ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Assistant Movies Editor
Jack O’Connell instantly became one of our most exciting new actors in last year’s prison drama Starred Up. However, he lost a bit of that glow with the forgettable Unbroken, in which he’s fine but doesn’t reach anything near the raw intensity we saw he was capable of. Well, in Yann Demange’s thriller ‘71, O’Connell proves that Starred Up wasn’t just a fluke and that he’s one of the most talented young stars working today.
O’Connell plays Gary Hook, an English soldier deployed to the streets of Belfast in 1971 during riots between Catholics and Protestants as part of The Troubles. When the riots get too extreme the soldiers retreat, but they leave two men behind: Hook, who escapes, and another soldier who is shot point blank in the head. Hook is lost in a town he’s just arrived at and in a political climate he has no stake in. He’s an outsider, and one that is being hunted by some of the more aggressive Catholics.
It’s a somewhat standard thriller setup, but one that director Yann Demange (making his feature debut here) and writer Gregory Burke effectively strip down to the basics, keeping it refreshingly unconvoluted. Demange might be criticized for a reliance on shaky-cam, but unlike most action filmmakers, he uses it purposefully to confuse us as much as Hook, rather than just because it’s easy. Demange and Burke do solid work, but their star is what holds the film together.
What’s key to O’Connell is that he’s a physical actor, one who doesn’t need big monologues to get a point or emotion across. ‘71 has no interest in giving him much dialogue at all, and so for much of the film we learn everything he’s thinking just through his face and his body language. The film opens with him boxing, soaked in sweat, and panting heavily. He goes through a lot of torment throughout the film and makes it all stick; he’s limping through the final frames. Starred Up gave him a lot of scenes to talk, here he has no more than a handful of lines.
Nothing much in ‘71 is revolutionary, but it’s refreshingly small-scale and O’Connell reaffirms his talent in a whole new way. Demange will be going places too, with his police corruption movie The Seven Five already set up at Sony.
Overall Grade: B