Dear British Film Institute,
It is films like ’71 that remind all of us why cinema can be called an art form. There is no commercial rationale for this film, no real clamor for an intimate picture about one English soldier and his harrowing experiences in Northern Ireland during the height of the unrest in 1971. In fact, without you and your support it is unlikely ’71 would have seen the light of day.
This is an extraordinary film. Affecting and subtly peppered with the kind of bucolic tragedy that occupies sectarian conflicts across the world, ‘71 honors the ideals you champion: developing young talent and helping to tell stories that are aesthetically rigorous while still remaining approachable to a wider audience.
’71 is a straightforward thriller. A young British soldier gets separated from his unit during a daytime raid on a Catholic block in Belfast, and then the rest of the film is occupied with his struggle to find his way back to his barracks. The depth of the work comes from the young soldier’s interactions with the various factions (and the individuals that comprise them) as he makes his fraught journey back to what he believes is safety.
The filmmaking is remarkably assured for any director but especially for someone making their feature film debut. Yann Demange is, not incidentally, someone you (and other privately and publicly funded institutions) have helped nurture throughout his career. This is a fine example of how properly funded and supported infrastructure can lead to some extraordinary work.
The cinematography is top notch, the editing is fluid and clear, and the story bangs along at a pitch perfect clip. The performances are uniformly solid. The only real standout—aside from the lead performance by Jack O’Connell—is Corey McKinley, a young actor playing an unnamed Loyalist youth. He owns the screen for a seven-minute stretch that pivots the whole film. McKinley manages to be both precociously assertive and somehow tragic as well.
There is a visual artistry to the film that comes close to overshadowing the narrative but Demange ultimately exercises shrewd judgment in where he puts his camera. Thrillers seem to work best, for me at least, when they remain restrained and understated. This film never forgets that dramatic tension derives from humans having to make decisions in a fundamentally clouded moral universe. For each character there are no good options, just ones that are more, or less, evil and self-serving.
‘71 contains useful echoes of Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of The Condor. It features a protagonist who is resourceful and capable trying to work through a byzantine and largely inscrutable political maze. Ultimately though, he is at the mercy of the people he encounters along the way, and it is how those interactions play out that determine his fate.
‘71 also has echoes of some of the best of the American films made in the late sixties and early seventies. It seems that a lot of modern filmmakers (JC Chandor and now Demange, just to name two) are taking their cues from people like Lumet, Scorsese and even Friedkin–producing muscular, spare dramas with a strong emphasis on good scripts and interesting characters.
So for whatever part you have in encouraging this kind of good work I cannot thank you enough, BFI. This was an unlooked for gem in what seems to be a bit of a renaissance for films made for adults.