This is the second in a twelve part series called The Post-TIFF, where I review one of the twelve movies that I screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Check back every week for a new Post-TIFF review and recap of a screening.
Jack O’Connell will likely become a household name when the Angelina Jolie-directed Unbroken hits theatres at the end of this year; some are even predicting early Oscar buzz for his performance. A look at O’Connell’s previous works certainly helps his case as a touted up-and-comer, including 71′, which made its rounds at film festivals this year. I attended a screening at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, which was followed by a Q&A with O’Connell, first-time director Yann Demange and producer Angus Lamont.
71′ follows British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) who accidentally gets left behind amidst a violent protest in the streets of Belfast during the 1970s conflicts in Northern Ireland. He engages in the ultimate cat-and-mouse game as he attempts to stay alive during a night in the conflict core. While there are certainly political undertones to the story, it is a tale of survival as Hook navigates the crooked roads and alleyways of Belfast, finds (surprisingly hilarious) allies in the unlikeliest of places and disguises himself as a local in order to live to tell the tale (and see his son again.) O’Connell’s performance is very physically-oriented; he barely speaks throughout the film. Between wounded breaths, fear-stricken facial expressions and what Demange called “an old-school masculinity and vulnerability”, he manages to communicate the tension Demange works very hard to instil over the course of the film.
It’s present in every component. The labyrinth setting (some of which was filmed in buildings near the production offices as a lot of the period architecture was torn down) is mostly shrouded in darkness and filled with random shortcuts and passageways, making Hook’s journey completely unpredictable and visually suspenseful. Demange favoured lots of shaky camera action which enhanced the audience’s experience of the violent and chaotic conditions through Hook’s perspective, but it had a bit of a dizzying effect after a while. Nevertheless, they are poignant. Both Demange and O’Connell spoke of their desire to create a film that was not a glorified representation but rather posed questions about the nature of the conflict, which really came across in a lot of the intimate shots, particularly during the initial riot scene. Demange wanted to cover the period where the conflict was beginning to escalate and that one scene alone really gave the audience a sense of troubling times ahead, not just for Hook’s character, but for the overall conflict. It was a sort of visual roundtable that captured the varying perspectives and emotions very well. It also served as the introduction point for many secondary characters and antagonists, some of whom were easy to confuse but also represented the very strong, youthful presence involved during that period. They helped tangle the plot and kept you intrigued, wondering with every turn and scene how Hook would ever be able to survive the night.
The sheer amount of suspense, visual storytelling and O’Connell’s performance are great reasons to check out 71′. Unfortunately it is only being distributed in the United Kingdom at this time, and will be released this Friday.