After a year-long tour on the festival circuit following its premiere at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival to rave reviews, the political thriller ’71, by British director Yann Demange, is finally opening in cinemas. Set in 1971, at the height of The Troubles, the film follows neophyte British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell in another star-making turn) on one fateful night in Belfast, when he finds himself injured and separated from his unit, deep in IRA territory. He spends the night struggling to survive, desperately trying to differentiate between friend and foe: the lines are constantly being blurred.
It’s a tense and thrilling film about an under-equipped soldier, thrust into a war he doesn’t fully understand, by a well-meaning commanding officer who doesn’t fully grasp the situation: mistakes get made, people get crossed, and as Gary starts to see the humanity in the other side and the cruelty in his own, he starts to lose the conviction to fight this fight.
Although this is Demange’s first feature, he’s already had a long and fruitful career in British television. Since the film is opening on the heels of Unbroken and Starred Up, it may seem like yet another film in which Jack O’Connell gets beaten up (can’t he just wear jeans and tell jokes, like Tom Hiddleston wants to?), but O’Connell was actually cast in ’71 first, which was shot just two weeks after Starred Up in spring 2013: they actually had to shoot the film backwards since dark hours were in increasingly short supply.
During the Sundance Film Festival, I sat down with Demange to discuss shooting digitally and on 16mm, creating the film’s tone and pace, collaborating with the writer and director of photography, and O’Connell’s remarkable performance.
The Seventh Row (7R): Although the film is very much about The Troubles and steeped in the politics of that time, there are no title cards to explain the history or background. You’re thrown right in.
Yann Demange (YD): I made a conscious decision not to try to explain to everybody, so you experience it with him [Gary], really. There isn’t that kind of political overview. Even in the U.K., nobody really knows the history, because they don’t teach it in schools. I knew, because I grew up with Thatcher talking on the news. But my niece and nephew — she’s 23, he’s 21— have just gone through the London schooling system: they don’t have a clue.
They still don’t teach it: 80% of the people we’re going for, who are going to the cinema, would know nothing about The Troubles. Do you take time to explain an overview and take everyone to school? And then start the story? I decided not to in the end. It’s actually a virtue, because it makes you more committed to Jack’s experience.