Directed by: Yann Demange
Starring: Jack O'Connell, Sean Harris, Sam Reid, David Wilmot
In the past, screen depictions of Northern Ireland's 'Troubles' have veered very much on the 'film' side. Yann Demange's thriller, however, is unashamedly a 'movie', which may point to how much progress has been made in that previously turbulent part of the world.
Jack O'Connell has been having a great year in 2014. Previously typecast as the evil chav in films like Eden Lake, Harry Brown and Tower Block, this year has seen him prove an impressive leading man in the gripping prison drama Starred Up. Here he plays Gary, a young and naive British soldier who finds himself shipped off to the mean streets of Belfast in 1971, a place he and his fellow squaddies know little about, having previously been led to believe they were destined for a cushy posting in West Germany.
On what should be a routine search of a Catholic Republican neighbourhood, things turn nasty when an angry mob arrives on the scene. The troops are forced to withdraw, but Gary is left behind and finds himself on the run from a group of would be IRA assassins. As he traverses the streets of Belfast, moving blindly between Catholic and Protestant areas, Gary finds himself also targeted by a black-ops group of soldiers led by Sean Harris, an actor who has cornered the weasel-faced scumbag market.
In Demange's hands, the story plays out like a John Carpenter homage. The nightscape of Belfast, with its burning cars and angry shadowy mobs, recalls the Manhattan of Escape From New York, though Gary is far from a hardened Snake Plissken figure. He's blissfully unaware of the conflict, at one point comparing the antagonism of Irish Catholics and Protestants to the rivalry between residents of the English midland cities of Derby and Nottingham. By making all three factions - Catholics, Protestants, Brits - the villains, and portraying Belfast as hell on earth, Demange allows us to root for his protagonist in spite of what side of the political debate we may fall on.
It's taken a lot longer for the Irish Troubles to receive a genre treatment than past conflicts like Vietnam or Yugoslavia, and I have to admit as an Irishman it was an almost surreal experience watching a situation I grew up with handled in such a superficial but technically accomplished manner. Tragedy plus time equals comedy, they say. In the case of '71, tragedy plus time has created an unlikely genre offering, and possibly the scariest release we'll see this Halloween season.
By Eric Hillis