Hong Kong International Film Festival 2015

New action drama in Troubles-beset Belfast thrills

An action drama set in strife-torn 1970s Northern Ireland doesn't take sides

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 March, 2015, 10:52pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 March, 2015, 3:34pm

In '71, an action-packed thriller set in Northern Ireland during the conflict between Catholics and Protestants - known as the Troubles - a young British soldier must find his way back to his barracks. It's a story both simple and complex, a gripping chase movie that's also politically aware.

Opening to rave reviews at home and abroad, the film has drawn attention to its star, 24-year-old English actor Jack O'Connell, who also had the lead role in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken. But '71 is perhaps most notable as the bold feature debut of director Yann Demange.

A successful director of commercials and British television who had been looking to make a feature film for some years, the 38-year-old found what he was looking for when Scottish playwright Gregory Burke sent him the '71 script . "If you had asked me a few years ago if I would make a film about the Troubles, I would have said 'No way'. It wasn't even on my radar," Demange says.

"I was really nervous; after Hunger [2008] and Bloody Sunday [2002], surely that had been the final word on it," the filmmaker says, referring to the acclaimed films on the conflict. "After I read the script though, I thought it felt completely different and new. It had a universality, and it spoke about a pattern of behaviour that could have been in Algeria or Ukraine."

Demange says the script "almost felt contemporary", although the story is set more than 40 years ago. O'Connell plays Private Gary Hook, a British Army recruit sent to Belfast as part of a security detail. On his first crowd-control mission, he is cut off from his squad, unarmed and alone. Afraid to give himself away with his accent, he must navigate not only the uncertain streets of Belfast on his way back to his barracks, but also a world of ambiguous allegiances and murky motivations.

After '71's world premiere at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival, it played at other such events including in Toronto, New York and London. The film will be screened this week at Hong Kong's own international film festival.

The movie was nominated for two Baftas this year and Demange took the directing prize at the British Independent Film Awards. And Hollywood is clearly taking note: Demange has taken on two high-profile projects. He will work with producers Megan Ellison and John Lesher on cop drama The Seven Five, and an untitled story based on the 1992 Los Angeles riots for New Regency and Brad Pitt's Plan B, the team behind Oscar winners 12 Years a Slave and Birdman.

Born in Paris to a French mother and Algerian father, Demange and his family moved to London, where he grew up on a diet of French films his mother's relatives would send over on video cassette - "Truffaut, Melville, a lot of the bad Belmondo movies". He also liked the action thrillers of John Carpenter and American westerns.

If you had asked me a few years ago if I would make a film about the Troubles, I would have said ‘No way’. It wasn’t even on my radar

When he was in his late teens, a friend's sister asked Demange to fill in as an assistant on a music video shoot in Ibiza because she knew he had a passport. He was soon attending Britain's National Film and Television School and then successfully moved into directing commercials and television, including the award-winning drama Top Boy.

The '71 project began when Glasgow-based producer Angus Lamont took an idea for a chase film to Burke, best known for his play Black Watch, about soldiers in the Black Watch regiment of the British Army serving in the Iraq war. The pair fashioned a work they saw as a parallel to Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (2006) in its lean, elemental storytelling. Demange then further developed the script.

Even while telling the story from Hook's point of view, '71 manages to capture the complicated political situation of the Troubles without favouring one side over the other. Thrown into something that he can't immediately comprehend, the soldier is lost in more ways than one, such as in a startling sequence in which he is led to safety by a young boy.

"It had to remain balanced. It couldn't take sides," says Demange. "Who am I to take sides, for a start? I wouldn't have felt comfortable with it."

Burke adds: "The whole point was - and Yann would bang on about this - we just had to keep everybody human. We can't ever feel we're in the trap of making anybody the bad guy. Life is complex and full of grey areas. Everybody, in any situation, thinks they are doing the right thing."

As the project moved towards production, the filmmakers realised the necessary locations in Belfast were scarce: the revitalised city no longer had the period-appropriate buildings and spaces that the film would need.

"If you want to be authentic to the look of Belfast in 1971, you couldn't do it in Belfast," Lamont explains. "You had to find it somewhere else."

The "somewhere else" was the English cities of Liverpool, Blackburn, Sheffield and Leeds, with at least one chase scene featuring shots from multiple cities. The apartment complex where the finale takes place stands in for Belfast's notorious Divis Flats, contested ground during the Troubles that was knocked down in the 1980s. A similar-looking complex, now unoccupied, was found in Sheffield.

"Belfast in those days resembled a northern English mill town," Burke says. "We thought it would be a neat trick where you have a physical environment that has a familiarity to this young guy and yet the people are completely alien to him. They don't talk like him, they all look the same, they seem the same, but they're also completely different."

The combination of politics and action, emotional insight and adrenaline-packed excitement in '71 might seem cohesive in hindsight, but it was a risky proposition at the start.

"It sounds incredibly naive now to say it, but I never thought I was making an action film," Demange says. "I thought it was about kids growing up in conflict, I thought it was a chase film, many different things. It's not really an out-and-out art-house film, and it's not really an out-and-out multiplex film. If you had told me I was making an out-and-out action film, I'd have said 'Of course not'."

Los Angeles Times

'71 , Tuesday, 9.30pm, The Grand Cinema, Elements Mall, West Kowloon; Friday, 1.30pm, Cultural Centre, TST. Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival. The film goes on general release on May 14