Feature: genre-defying '71 offers fresh take on the Troubles

Director Yann Demange knew little about the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland until he read a script about a rookie British soldier lost on the strife-torn streets of Belfast

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 June, 2015, 11:37pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 September, 2015, 6:05pm

Set on the backstreets and around the apartment blocks of Belfast, Yann Demange's Bafta-nominated debut film '71 is a surprising beast. Part survival story, part political thriller, it's one of the most refreshing movies about what became known as the Troubles since Paul Greengrass' 2002 drama Bloody Sunday. Rarely has the Nationalist/Unionist conflict that devastated Northern Ireland for decades been so vividly dramatised.

Set in 1971, the story is seen through the eyes of rookie British soldier Gary Hook (played by Jack O'Connell), separated from his unit and lost on the bomb-torn streets of the Northern Irish capital, where danger lurks at every turn.

Written by award-winning Scottish playwright Gregory Burke (famed for the play Black Watch, about British soldiers in Iraq), the script took television director Demange by surprise.

"The writing was so visceral, muscular, but, more importantly, I cared about the characters," he says. "They felt so pertinent."

Although he "wasn't drawn to the subject of the Troubles", the more he read the script, the more it felt relevant to modern times.

"It transcended the specificity of the Troubles and I could see the universality in it. We could've been talking about many conflicts that are going on."

O'Connell, the 24-year-old British actor who recently starred in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, came to the project with more knowledge than Demange. Despite growing up in Derby, his father hailed from County Kerry, in southern Ireland. "There was a large Irish influence in my upbringing and one I'm proud of," O'Connell says. He'd even considered joining the army in his teens. "Thankfully, I was too young to sign on the dotted line," he says.

If these were the reasons why he was immediately drawn to playing Gary Hook, it's not as if he and his character are exactly alike. "The main difference between myself and Gary is that I have an understanding of the backstory and the conflict itself, more so than Gary did. I'm probably more politically minded and historically informed," O'Connell says

Hook is an innocent, parachuted into this faction-led street battle. "He's a clueless kid bouncing around," says Demange.

Set over just a few hours, with Hook stranded on the unfamiliar streets, unsure if the next passer-by will be friend or foe, '71 is a lean work, with O'Connell not speaking for much of the film. "With every draft, the dialogue went," explains Demange, who took his screenwriter to the shooting locations (with Liverpool, Sheffield and Blackburn doubling for Belfast) to plot out the action for the stripped-back story.

Such an approach wasn't easy for O'Connell. "I felt lost a lot of the time," he admits. Yet, comparing him to a young Gary Oldman, Demange pays tribute to his star. "He's not scared of being naked on screen, and that he had no dialogue. Some actors, you take their dialogue away and they're panicking - they're grasping. He can hold the silent moment and try and put something in the eyes - and I believed it."

While Hook's story becomes seen in a wider context, as members of the IRA, British army and loyalist paramilitary groups come to blows, the film doesn't spend time untangling this web. "That's what I loved about the screenplay," says Demange. "Greg really captured the mess of it. You are experiencing it like Gary Hook. Most people that watch the film were probably born after the [1998] Good Friday Agreement, and we made a decision not to have lots of exposition. You're like him - you're disorientated."

Deliberately, O'Connell decided to stay away from the sections of the shoot that didn't concern his character.

"There were parts of the story I didn't want to know," he says.

This meant not knowing about the inexperienced Lieutenant Armitage (Sam Reid) and his attempts to locate Hook. Or that Boyle (David Wilmot), a senior member of the IRA, is cutting a deal with Sean Harris' British army captain for the safe return of Hook. "I wanted to remain as unaware as Gary is."

When it came to the shooting style, Demange admits he "stole and borrowed" from Paul Greengrass to Kathryn Bigelow ( The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), as well as classics such as The Battle of Algiers and The Army of Shadows. The mission was to make a movie that went beyond being a "straight-up genre film", he says.

"It had to have a real humanity. I haven't got enough distance, but we had to tread the shades of grey - humanise and demonise everyone in equal measure. At no point could he act like an action hero."

O'Connell concurs with his director. "If we were to call it an action-thriller, I don't think the film has been appreciated fully. If it's just going to be pigeon-holed in the same sort of context as shoot-'em-ups, where people are getting slaughtered left, right and centre and we feel no empathy … I feel that every murder on screen, every blow, every near miss, is humanised." Or as Demange puts it, "The extinguishing of every life had to mean something."

The director admits that while the film begins in the mould of social realism, he wanted it to take on a more mythic quality later on, with Belfast taking on a hellish, inferno-like quality. "I wanted to go somewhere a bit more impressionistic than you'd see in, say, the Bourne films. It was something other." It's why, rather like Gary Hook's night on the streets, there are surprises around every corner.

'71 opens on June 4