'71

Bomb-torn Belfast in 1971 must have been like nowhere else on Earth – more like a rubble-strewn circle of hell. This is the apocalyptic vision laid out in Yann Demange’s stunningly well-crafted survival thriller, ’71. The film’s stark realism and bruising impact are enough in themselves, but the risk, and the real artistic payoff, is its bold sensory plunge into this Hadean inferno.

Poster art for '71Jack O’Connell stars as Gary Hook, a young squaddie fresh out of training school, whose unit is dispatched to help with peacekeeping in the Northern Irish capital, amid the rising tensions of that fatefully violent year.

These unprepared rookies have barely taken to the streets before rioting breaks out, and Gary finds himself cut adrift from his companions. As night closes in, he has no idea how to get back to his barracks, and must throw himself on the mercy of loyalist allies who are no certain guarantees of sanctuary.

Gary is by no means the kind of trigger-happy meathead you might expect to find as an extra in Paul Greengrass’s much more politically incendiary Bloody Sunday. Instead, he’s green, terrified, out of his depth.

The story’s an extremely robust springboard, but Demange – an experienced tv veteran making a blindingly strong feature debut – knows how to heighten its power with experiential wizardry, and gets us dreading what’s around every corner. Demange’s cinematopher, Tat Radcliffe, makes the lamplit streets gape with black threat, and his sound team turns the aftermath of a devastating pub bombing into a shell-shocked trance of disorientation.

While Gary’s desperation can’t help but summon memories of James Mason staggering around Belfast looking for refuge in Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, Demange’s urgent, pared-down style and throbbing score are more often interestingly reminiscent of John Carpenter. When Gary, trapped in a high-rise, must face down terrorists his own age – it’s him or them – the film’s moral conscience speaks quite movingly, and it’s so intuitive in controlling our headspace that not a single word’s needed to get us there.

In revisiting the Troubles, what this film finds is a wasteland of shattered trust, and the only objective it comprehends is getting out alive.

– Tim Robey, The Daily Telegraph

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