Tumultous history of Ireland unfolds in ”71′

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Jack O’Connell has a knack for choosing unglamourous roles. The British actor is known for his part as a misguided skinhead in “This Is England,” the explosively angry James Cook on the teen drama “Skins,” a violent inmate in “Starred Up” and POW Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken.” In screenwriter Gregory Burke and director Yann Demange’s “‘71,” O’Connell stays true to form, proving once again that he has the emotional depth and physicality to bring the grittiest of characters to life.

O’Connell stars as Pvt. Gary Hook, a green British soldier sent to Belfast, Northern Ireland, on an emergency basis in 1971. The entire context for the conflict is provided in one quick briefing: Friendly, loyalist Protestants in the eastern part of the city are fighting hostile, nationalist Catholics in the west and the frontlines are an Irish Republican Army-controlled housing section called the Divis Flats. Beyond this information, the story unfolds in an apolitical, vague neutrality that keeps the audience as confused as Hook and his fellow soldiers as to who is who and why they are fighting. Of course, the situation in Belfast during the “Troubles” is not exactly a historical blind spot, and the nationalism, imperialism and religious discrimination that gripped Northern Ireland are not unimportant to the film’s story. But Demange is careful to remove most of the political charge and turn the focus more towards action than reason.

This drama unfolds during a single night in Belfast. Shortly after arriving, Hook follows his untested, posh lieutenant (Sam Reid) on a routine mission into the Catholic part of town. Not anticipating any conflict, the squad goes in without riot gear, only to find themselves in a hostile and rapidly escalating situation. Women bang the ground with trash can lids, ominously signaling for crowds of men, women and children to pour out of the apartment buildings, forming a line of aggression in front of the soldiers. A closeup on Hook shows unease, realization of his lieutenant’s underestimation and cold panic all in one expression. Tight shots frame a host of micro-clashes that suddenly explode into a cacophony of screams, punches, pounding footsteps and gunshots. In the riotous confusion, Hook is separated from his squadron, who leave him behind in their hasty retreat.

Alone and behind enemy lines, Hook flees the scene, followed by members of the Provisional IRA (just to add another political faction into the mix) who are intent on killing him. The camera work in this foot pursuit is some of the best in the film. It’s shaky, confused, choppy, diverting — like you’ve stopped breathing while watching a combat video game from two inches in front of the screen. The rest of the film unfolds in much the same way, with Hook on a furtive, woozy run through a Belfastian labyrinth.

On his odyssey, the English soldier encounters a host of characters whose motives and allegiances shift constantly, or, rather, are slowly revealed. Billed simply as “Loyalist Child,” Corey McKinley stands out as Hook’s fabulously foul-mouthed rescuer who orders around Protestant para-militants with the bravado of a seasoned war veteran. Sean Harris is sheer terror as Capt. Browning, a manipulative counterinsurgent whose presence onscreen sets the tense tone for the cinematically stunning final act.

The performances are solid across the board, but “‘71” is really O’Connell’s movie. With a minimal backstory and hardly any dialogue, he fleshes out the character with naivety, liability and just enough charisma to keep audiences rooting for him to get back to the barracks alive. While “‘71” may not make as big of a splash with American moviegoers as last year’s “Unbroken,” it has already found a home among film critics.

Part period piece, part political thriller and part war movie, Demange’s debut feature-length film is artful in its execution and lingering in its impact. If only it were clear what’s going on.

‘”71″ will be playing at Century 9 in San Francisco on Friday. 

Contact Grace Lovio at [email protected].