’71’: The forgotten war drama that’s Jack O’Connell’s greatest movie
(Credits: StudioCanal)


'71': The forgotten war drama that's Jack O'Connell's greatest movie

It didn’t take long for Jack O’Connell to earn a reputation as being one of the most promising young talents to emerge from British cinema in a long time, with the early years of his career repeatedly illustrating his talents as a phenomenally gifted actor.

His feature debut came in Shane Meadows’ unflinching This Is England, which he immediately followed up with the brutal urban horror Eden Lake and Michael Caine’s hard-boiled revenge thriller Harry Brown, before joining the star-making factory of Skins as James Cook alongside Dev Patel, Nicholas Hoult, Kaya Scodelario, Joe Dempsie, and Daniel Kaluuya among others.

David Mackenzie’s prison-set story Starred Up offered an indication of what he could bring to the table as a leading man after O’Connell delivered a phenomenal performance before Yann Demange’s debut movie ’71 underlined that belief with a nail-biting, nerve-shredding, and pulse-pounding action thriller embedded in the harsh realities of its setting.

O’Connell’s Gary Hook is a fresh-faced recruit sent to Belfast in 1971 during the early years of the Troubles, where he soon finds himself at the mercy of Sam Reid’s inexperienced superior officer Armitage. Initially shocked by the way the armed forces treat the local population, he ends up being separated from his unit and placed into a desperate battle for survival after attempts to diffuse a riot go disastrously awry.

Although ’71 is an action thriller that features plenty of excruciatingly intense set pieces and kinetically staged beats designed to engage an already-captive audience, neither Demange nor O’Connell overlook the historical heft of the narrative, with the theme of lost innocence recurring on both sides of the divide through the rookie soldier left to fend for himself and the way many of those pursuing him are barely older than children themselves.

It would be a disservice to call it a chase film, but in the broadest sense, that’s the territory it occupies. However, thanks to O’Connell’s resolutely convincing performance that finds Cook forced to evolve from wide-eyed and wet behind the ears recruit to a battle-hardened warrior, he carries an everyman quality and air of vulnerability that anchors ’71 in relatable and real human drama amidst the ricochets of gunfire and the increasing desperation of his ordeal.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling, with O’Connell’s next two on-screen credits in the aftermath of ’71 coming in blockbuster fantasy sequel 300: Rise of an Empire and Angelina Jolie-directed biographical drama Unbroken, but he’s yet to star in anything better than Demange’s relentless thriller.

It’s up for debate as to whether or not O’Connell has managed to reach the heights that were predicted for him a decade ago, but ’71 offers a stark and powerful reminder of his capabilities in what’s comfortably his finest film.