Apocalypto Now: Jack O’Connell On The Run, In ’71

71 run

Give it, and take it back.” The ritualised  boxing match “blooding” of young recruits in the training opening sequence of ‘71, by director Yann Demange (Top Boy) and writer Gregory Burke (Black Watch) deliberately wrong foots the audience that what follows may be a macho take on The Troubles. Instead, they seek to transcend the period’s politico-drama cliches, with a visceral, art-house action take that nevertheless addresses the very real human cost of conflict to young men, barely out of school or college, pertinent to the rolling conflicts of today’s headlines.

You may have seen the various references and influences bandied about – Escape From West Belfast New York, The Warriors, Assault On Precinct 13 – all deliberate, with a focus on a scared hero’s tactile attempts to make it through hostile territory, out of their depth. Burke had just seen Mel Gibson’s Mayan survival adrenalin main-liner, Apocalypto, and declared it a major influence in that regard. Apocalypto Niy, if you will, in the local Belfast vernacular.

Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is the audience avatar,a Derbyshire lad who would feel the familiarity of a Northern mill town in the narrow red brick terraced streets of West Belfast, yet unlike a Scottish squaddie (a deliberate choice by Burke), unfamiliar with its sectarian pulse and fault lines. Surprised to not be sent to West Germany as expected, these green warriors are dispatched to Belfast on “an emergency basis” in the titular year, when internment was introduced, and the conflict was ever spiralling out of control.

Deployed to secure a side street while the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) conduct a search for weapons in a Republican house, things quickly escalate, exacerbated by the heavy handed tactics of the police, and their “new boy myself” posh lieutenant’s decision to forego riot gear for berets and a human face. Bricks are thrown, their sergeant is knocked unconscious, and a kid bolts with his rifle. Dispatched to retrieve it, Gary and mate Thommo are quickly surrounded, getting a hiding, before a stalwart local woman intervenes. Just when you think things may calm down, Thommo gets shot, the RUC and platoon retreat, and Gary is haring away in fear of his life, in a breathtakingly gritty and kinetic foot chase, bowling over a young mum with a pram, bursting through a warren of back alleys and over walls (Demange admits emulating the footchase in Point Break – for edginess, I recalled the opening to Joe Carnahan’s Narc). From there on he’s on his own, bewildered, lost, injured and very, very scared.

“The situation is somewhat complicated”

Day turns to night, and the city and its roving gangs, gunmen and other threats becomes even more terrifying, its bruised face bathed in the sickly sodium glow of streetlamps and petrol bombs. A cheeky, foul-mouthed pre-teen guides Gary to the relative safety of a pub run by his uncle, a big man in the Loyalist “friendly” side of the divide. Gary comes under even more danger when he stumbles upon the machinations of sinister Sean Harris’s Captain Browning and his undercover Military Reaction Force squad – vampires in the nascent shadow war, feeding off tribal bloodlust. After sustaining injuries in an accidental explosion caused by a primitive bomb earmarked for elsewhere, he drifts back to the hostile Falls Road, where he is patched up by humanitarian ex-British army medic Eamon (Richard Dormer) and his daughter Brigid (Charlie Murphy), undergoing some harrowing battlefield stitching. Gary becomes sought by his lieutenant and squad, the MRF, rival Official and hawk-sian Provisional IRA gunmen, all converging on the Divis flats.

71 -by-Yann-Demange_3-860x400
Demange and his crew have really done their homework, with period detail, wardrobe and slang cementing authentic verisimilitude. If one is familiar with the fates of “the disappeared”, then one shudders to think at the fate of the woman who attempts to save Gary and Thommo. Hence Eamon and Brigid’s concern at a Brit in their midst, informing the “Stickies” (official IRA) chief Boyle (David Wilmot) and hoping he can negotiate a solution to the conundrum.

The eerie foreboding of the raids, housewives clattering bin lids in alarum, and David Holmes’ eerie, discordant score, unsettle. Sound design throughout is superb, especially during the aftermath of the explosion, married to a visual cauldron of charred, missing limbs.

71 glow

For the riot, he studied crowd unrest in The Battle Of Algiers (half French, half Algerian Demange’s aunt was actually the milk bar bomber in that film) and Don McCullin‘s iconic Troubles photography, the streets resembling an urban wasteland, post-apocalyptic. Long term D.P Tat Radcliffe shot the daytime scenes in 16mm to match the grainy, washed-out TV coverage of the period, switching to digital for a night-time eerie, horror-movie sinisterism.

Jack O’Connell is simply outstanding in this, conveying so much with nuanced expressions and body language, cutting many of his own lines. Transitioning smoothly from amiable older sibling and father figure, knocking a football about with his younger brother on a quick visit to the care home he presumably grew up in himself; to a cheerful young recruit laughing at cheeky Belfast kids; concerned soldier trying to hold the line in an ugly confrontation, and finally shit scared, on the run, relying on his wits in an urban nightmare. “This film is about a boy trying to define what sort of man he’ll be,” Demange says. “What sort of choices he’s going to make. Belonging against being your own man.” Baby faced would-be killer Sean (Barry Keoghan) shares similarities with Gary, excited by the drama on his doorstep (we see several close-ups of him in the crowd), then later solicitous of his younger sister with her homework, before being summoned to help move hidden guns. Both young men will find killing face to face is an ugly, scarring wound on the soul, in two especially harrowing incidents .

If there is a sense that the conflict is beyond comprehension and unending, and the Army’s duplicitousness and “man up” dismissal of Hook’s ordeal unfeeling, Gary in the end will at least have escaped this rigged game.

To read about Demange’s “Tone book” preparation for the film, see this feature by Empire. And click here to see the director and his young star discuss the film.

Read and post comments on this article