Mark my words (just like I said back at the New York Film Festival when I first saw this film)…Jack O’Connell is going to be a big star. Director Yann Demange and writer Gregory Burke give him a truly great showcase here with ’71, a tension filled war drama centered around the Irish “Troubles”. O’Connell gets put through the ringer here, something that’s also done in Angelina Jolie‘s Unbroken, but I’d say to a much more effective use in ’71. Jolie’s movie doesn’t come close to this, as it’s O’Connell’s best work of to date. Throw in Starred Up from last year as well and they all represent star making turns for him. Jolie’s awards bait got him the most audience members by far, but this could be the performance that really puts him on other filmmakers’ radars going forward. His portrait of a young soldier trapped in a very bad place has echoes of not just other films of this ilk, but the action flick The Raid: Redemption from a fey years ago as well. It not only was one of my favorite films of NYFF last year, it represents one of my top titles of 2015 so far as well. ’71 is a small movie, but it’s a great one. Intense in all the right ways, it’s one not to miss. Trust me there. I think it’s going to surprise a lot of people, especially those who found him to be captivating in his two 2014 releases. This is the best of the bunch so far, at least if you ask me.
Gary Hook (O’Connell) is a brand new Private in the British Army, one who initially seems ready for just about anything that might come his way. That changes fairly quickly upon his first deployment in Belfast, where during a bit of initially standard crowd control a rifle is stolen from a fellow soldier by a young boy. He’s ordered to chase after it and within minutes is ambushed, beaten, and accidentally abandoned by his unit. The deadly riot has their complete attention and Hook is left to fend for himself, deep in what’s essentially enemy territory. He’s a raw recruit, injured, scared and confused, but determined to survive. As such, he doesn’t just take this lying down, but opts to survive. Thus begins a very long night where he finds himself suspicious of former comrades (including one played by Sean Harris), having to trust former enemies, and unsure if he has any chance of getting out of this area alive. I don’t want to say too much about what happens during the second half of the movie, particularly once Hook is in an apartment complex, but it’s often riveting. ’71 is hard to forget, I can promise you that much.
I can’t say enough about Jack O’Connell here in this flick. He effortlessly conveys both the confusion inherent in a young soldier in over his head as well as the dogged will to survive that takes over you during moments of truth. It proves to me that he really can do anything, so I can’t wait to see him hopefully become a superstar in the next few years. Yes, to some degree this is a one man show, so that helps, but he’s clearly a superior talent. Compare this to the at times similar Unbroken to see how much brighter he shines here. It’s super early, but you have to consider him at least an outside player for Best Actor attention later on this year. Able support is provided by the aforementioned Sean Harris, as well as Lewis Paul Anderson, Richard Dormer, and Sam Reid, to name three, but O’Connell is clearly the star here. Whether he winds up in a superhero movie over the next couple years, continues in indie fare like this, or becomes a mainstream leading man, the one sure thing is that he’s going to continually impress. O’Connell is well on his way to becoming one of our very best young actors. Don’t you dare sleep on his talents.
Director Yann Demange also shows himself to be a filmmaker with a bright future ahead of him. Demange’s direction is documentary-like and gritty, often recalling Paul Greengrass to me, particularly Bloody Sunday. He also gets this work out of O’Connell, so that’s worth praising as well. The script by Gregory Burke is sparse, but it wisely showcases the tension that seeps out of every pore of this flick. Burke and Demange make a good team, so I’d certainly be down to see them make a follow up to ’71 together. If you want to be picky, you could say that the third act doesn’t match the simplicity of what comes before it, but this is strong work all around, no doubt. Demange especially has a long career ahead.
It is my very sincere hope that ’71 winds up finding a solid audience now that it’s moved to a theatrical release, because I want you all to see the work that I saw back at the New York Film Festival. O’Connell is reason enough to check this one out, but on the whole it’s really a top notch work. Hopefully O’Connell remains highly praised right up until the next precursor season, but it’s way too early to say much about that, especially if his turn in the upcoming Money Monster gets him some buzz. Still, this is something to praise. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s something that could stay in play for my year end top ten list. It’s a top tier 2015 release. Don’t miss ’71…you can thank me later.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!