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film review

Jack O'Connell stars in Yann Demange‘s ‘71.

The protagonist of '71, a gritty and garrote-tight suspense story set in the split city of Belfast in the year before Northern Ireland's Bloody Sunday massacre, is Gary, a stand-up chap from Derbyshire who has joined Britain's Parachute Regiment. The film's opening segment has him boxing against a fellow soldier, as part of a training and fitness exercise. Boxing isn't complicated – that guy in front of you, he's your opposition.

Soon enough, Gary and his unit are told of their posting. "You're going to Belfast, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom – here," the young soldiers are told. "You're not leaving this country."

Not leaving this country? Technically, true – Northern Ireland belonged to the British. But in 1971, the "province" was a bloody outpost of the empire, one where loyalties were divided, lines were jaggedly drawn and one's opponents were hard to tell from the friends. Bob's your uncle? Well, he might be. And maybe the chatty bartender in the pub has a bomb, and perhaps that undercover agent is not on the side he's supposed to be.

Inspired by nocturnal thrillers such as The Warriors and John Carpenter's Escape from New York, with his '71 the dynamite first-time feature director Yann Demange gives us his take on the Troubles, a violent 30-year struggle over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. His is a street-level look at a world within a world that is a maze, in which behind every corner is God knows who or what. The soundtrack pulses with intensity and the action is almost surreally heightened.

Mister cinema cleaner, don't bother wiping down the back of this seat – my spine never touched it once.

Jack O'Connell is the rookie soldier Gary, who finds himself wounded and detached from his unit when a house-to-house search goes wrong and riotous. He's not so much stranded behind lines as he is lost in a ball of confusion, not knowing who to trust. His dialogue sparse, O'Connell commands the screen nevertheless. His terror, his breathlessness and his gradual grasping of his surroundings are conveyed through expression and eyeballs.

A year ago the up-and-comer O'Connell played a Second World War prisoner of war in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, in which his character had to hold up (for dear life) a honking piece of wood. For '71, O'Connell does the heavy lifting as well.

Though Demange's touch and tone is rich and muscular, the roles of the supporting actors call for – and absolutely receive – nuance. Sean Harris's manners as a plainclothes operative are as shaded and unreadable as Matthew McConaughey's new beard. Barry Keoghan is fascinatingly blank-faced as a conflicted Republican teenager.

Republicans or loyalists, Catholics or Protestants – this film is not about political or religious trenches. People died, but it's more than the bombs, bullets and bodies. The more fascinating damage was done to psyches and souls, and Demange, with '71, comes for yours.