(Yann Demange, 2014)
Finding the sweet spot between a visually poetic art house drama and an adrenalised action thriller, '71 is a beautiful, gripping, supremely pared-down experience.
It's first 20 minutes or so may be the most impressive passage in the film. With little dialogue we are introduced to Hook (Jack O'Connell, as good as ever), training with the British army in 1971 in scenes captured with a beautiful feel for tone and texture by Demange and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe. Hook and his comrades spar, run, attempt obstacle courses and bond in the bleakness of Northern England. Here David Holmes' sublime, atmospheric score rises up on the soundtrack, while we have the bland conformity and uniformity of our protagonist made evident as we struggle to distinguish him from all of the other young squaddies, young men in green with shaven heads.
Sent to Belfast in 1971, just as the Troubles began to get truly nasty, these young men, led as they are by an equally youthful, clueless rookie Officer (a later line of dialogue defines the army as "Posh cunts, telling thick cunts to shoot poor cunts") are thrust into a hideously complex situation.
In their first operation, Hook is separated from his unit and his weapon and soon finds himself on the run from everybody - IRA, undercover British agents - on the nocturnal streets of West Belfast.
'71 is therefore a quite unrelenting action-thriller, filled with suspense and a couple of riveting, visceral set-pieces, but it manages a few surprisingly articulate comments of the subject of Northern Ireland too. It never simplifies its portrayal of the politics of the region or the era, instead depicting, well, everyone as diabolical and scheming. The IRA is split between the old-school organisation and a younger, more aggressive generation (who are the main predators hunting for Hook), while the UVF and the RUC are just as anti-Catholic as one another, and the undercover agents seem to play everybody off against each other for their own unfathomable reasons.
Hook stumbles from one situation and character to another, always vulnerable, never quite in control of what is happening to him, generally uncomprehending of who anybody is. The two branches of the IRA play out a power struggle while the undercover men, lead by the terrific Sean Harris in another of his long line of terrifying sociopath roles, do deals on each side and work their long-term schemes.
All of this fills in the world Hook moves through, but it is the way he moves that keeps this film so electrifying. With nighttime scenes shot digitally - its rare to see a film that captures so well what the light looks life like beneath halogen streetlamps, all deep shadows and sickly yellows - Demange maintains an almost queasy sense of tension as Hook tries to make his way back to barracks.
The action scenes are fantastic, but what works best of all are those first minutes on the streets of Belfast. We can feel the bewilderment and dislocation of these young men to see streets that look so familiar littered with destroyed cars, to encounter young boys who throw bottles of urine at them.
This world has never been captured quite so vividly before.