Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 15, 2014 4:29 pm 
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Demange's incredible Irish Troubles film gives new meaning to the phrase, "caught in the crossfire"

Yann Demange's incredibly intense Troubles film gives us twenty-four hours in the life of English squad member Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell), suddenly stationed in Belfast (he thought he was going to be sent to Germany) and thrown into a violet, Intifada-like fray his green, patrician commanding officer and sergeant are not prepared for. A teenaged orphan with a kid brother (Harry Verity) whom we meet at the outset, Hook finds himself on the run and wounded after a comrade is killed by his side in a street clash and his unit bolts, accidentally abandoning him. He is rescued and treated by Irish allies. But he's in hostile territory -- everyone is. This non-stop historical action movie is an authentic recreation of a hot, lethal slice of the Troubles. It doesn't break things down or make them easy for us (some subtitles might have helped). From the Ulster Protestant side are the Unionists and loyalists, and on the mostly Catholic side are the Irish nationalists and republicans, and there are the Privisional IRA, and those originally on their side who have turned against them because of their brutality. And to complicate matters there are the undercover Brits of the MRF, whose officers regard themselves as outranking the English soldiers. Caught in between, Hook is told he is "just meat" -- to his government, to the Army, and to his Irish enemies.

An initial chase scene with Hook running break-neck along back alleys and in tiny spaces behind tight houses pursued by two enemies is breathtaking, intense filmmaking. The sense of Hook's abandonment as he sits panting in a tiny space is real and vivid. From there on the film settles down into some of the machinations and mood of James Marsh's 2012 Shadow Dancer, which deals with the Troubles but in the Nineties. Except where Marsh's film stagnates at times, Damange's maintains a world-class actioner clip that never cease to impress you, grip you, and horrify you as you watch, always with the spotlight on Gary Hook to keep the action centered, despite its constant ambiguity and danger. No film has better shown how dangerous Northern Ireland at this period was or how bitter and lethal the hostilities among people were.

And the hostility even includes those ostensibly setting out to save Hook, because there is dissension between the regular army and the intelligence officers who consider themselves and their undefined mission more important than Hook or his comrades. And what betrayals lie in wait on the Irish side? In fact while the physical suffering and danger are clearly defined, the politics and the loyalties remain lurking and ambiguous, all this amplified for an American viewer by the sometimes hard-to-decipher accents. For its sense of everything gone wrong, of war as no good for anybody (a point written into the dialogue but succinctly enough to avoid didacticism), the succinctly named '71 almost deserves comparison with a stunning anti-war film like Bernhard Wicki's 1959 The Bridge/Die Brücke ("In 1945, Germany is being overrun, and nobody is left to fight but teenagers"), which also has a long devastating action sequence.

Yann Damange is a French-born filmaker in England who has worked largely in TV, gaining admiration and awards. In 2011 he was directing the flavorful BBC drama miniseries "Top Boy" about inner-city London estate teenagers involved in risky drug dealing. '71, his first feature, has mostly gotten deserved raves; it establishes its director as a master of understated technique and muscular, riveting action. He falters in a few lesser respects. Some might think a final shootout far-fetched or overly drawn-out; and the concluding moments are a nice enough calm-down but fairly routine. But these are minor quibbles. In his Variety review Guy Lodge describes Jack McConnell as a "rapidly rising star," and indeed intense as his role is here, one easily imagines him capable of more. He is also seen in the much-talked-about new prison drama Starred Up (which I have not seen). Guy Lodge compares this film with Paul Greengrass' benchmark 2002 docudrama of the Troubles set in '72, Bloody Sunday, which indeed it brings to mind. Tat Radcliffe’s fine widescreen cinematography shifts between 16mm. for daytime and digital for razor sharp night images. All the tech aspects are aces as are all the performances. See for yourself: this is a film not to be missed.

'71, 99 mins., debuted at Berlin, and showed at Telluride and Toronto; many other international festivals. It was screened for this review as part of the 52nd New York Film Festival, where its excellence clearly merited its inclusion in the Main Slate. It opens theatrically in the UK 10 October and in France 5 November 2014; also Ireland, Sweden, Greece, and Span. Roadside Attractions owns its US distribution rights. US theatrical release begins 27 February 2015. Metacritic rating now 80%.

(For my full coverage of the 2014 NYFF see also FILMLEAF.)

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