Film reviews: ‘71 | Tony Benn: Will and Testament

'71 is an 'impressive first feature' from Yann Demange, starring Jack O'Connell. Picture: Contributed
'71 is an 'impressive first feature' from Yann Demange, starring Jack O'Connell. Picture: Contributed
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Jack O’Connell gives a riveting performance as an English recruit separated from his unit in Belfast during The Troubles in Northern Ireland in Yann Demange’s ‘71

’71 (15)

Director: Yann Demange

Running time: 99 minutes

* * * *

THE sectarian Troubles in Northern Ireland were reaching their height in 1971. The year opened with a week of serious rioting in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, and continued with a mounting campaign of bombings and attacks on the British army by the Provisional IRA. In February, the first British soldier died, shot by the IRA in north Belfast.

Three quick scenes in Yann Demange’s riveting thriller ’71 sketch out a British army unprepared for what awaits them. When a platoon of new recruits are told they are being shipped out, they assume they are heading for Germany, not Belfast. On their first day escorting the RUC on a patrol, they get lost and are pelted by children. And when they tool up, their commanding officer tells them to leave their riot gear behind because he doesn’t want to alarm the local community. Behind him, more experienced soldiers exchange sceptical looks. Their disbelief is justified: the platoon come under attack, a scuffle leads to panicked exchanges and a hostile crowd become an angry mob.

In the middle of the riot, raw English recruit Gary (Jack O’Connell) is separated from his unit and chased deeper into a Belfast he doesn’t know. TV director Demange stages a deft, nightmarish chase through a labyrinth of streets and back alleys around the Falls Road, including IRA safehouses with walls knocked down to create a rat run through semi-detached homes.

Stranded, injured and with no obvious allies, he has to make his way back to barracks, dodging battles between Catholics and Protestants, before an IRA gun squad hunts him down.

It’s easy enough for a film to sketch out a fraught situation and then imbue it with facile moral ambiguities but Gregory Burke, who also wrote Black Watch for the National Theatre of Scotland, has scripted an atmosphere dense with anxiety, but also with sharp jolts and surprises from all sides. There’s a streetwise feral child (Corey McKinley) who seems destined to become a ferocious loyalist if he makes it to adulthood. A father and daughter (Richard Dormer and Charlie Murphy) take Gary in, sew up his wounds and give him shelter, then are horrified to discover his British dogtags. Everyone Gary encounters that night has conflicting values, especially Sean Harris’s undercover operative.It’s an impressive first feature from Demange, who is French and was unfamiliar with the details of the Northern Ireland conflict until he was sent Burke’s script. ’71 has been compared to Odd Man Out, the 1947 James Mason film about an Irish gunman trying to escape the city, but this film charts its own path, largely skirting the usual Troubles tropes, although unable to resist characterising the troops’ involvement as “posh c***s telling thick c***s to kill poor c***s”

’71 also confirms O’Connell as British star. In the past few years he’s played a Greek warrior in 300: Rise Of An Empire, a First World War soldier in Private Peaceful, and a young offender in Starred Up. Maybe his agent should consider breaking him out of regimented environments sometime soon, but you can see why he’s so often cast as terse, inarticulate characters; O’Connell is an eloquent actor who can do more with less.

The Maze Runner (12A)

* * *

Dystopia is no cakewalk, but apparently it’s going to be especially hard on teenagers. In The Hunger Games they are forced into gladiatorial deathmatches, Divergent won’t tolerate any quirky individuality, and now The Maze Runner has them stranded in a gigantic labyrinth patrolled by murderous robot spiders.

Like the film’s protagonist Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), we arrive in The Glade blinking and a little confused. The Glade is a field with a forest, a wooden encampment and a pack of teenage boys. They arrived with their memories wiped, and stayed because they are surrounded by unscalable walls designed by a big fan of brutalist architecture, and a labyrinth studded with deathtraps which changes its configuration every night.

Rather than escape, the all-male crew have settled down to raise crops, elect reasonable Alby (Aml Ameen) as their leader, and have a little fun hazing new arrivals. A community of conscientious cooking, cleaning and coiffed teens seems to paint a rather optimistic view of how boys might conduct themselves in a closed environment, but I suppose no-one remembers reading Lord Of The Flies.

You might wonder how the chaps coped in a female-free environment before the arrival of Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), but director Wes Ball’s mild entertainment is more interested in plodding towards a hopeful sequel than venturing into that minefield.

Tony Benn: Will And Testament (12A)

* * *

A warm and largely uncritical tribute to the life and times of Tony Benn, by Tony Benn. Skip Kite filmed Benn’s account of his political life, his poignantly happy marriage, and his views on war, energy, comradeship, peerages and Scottish independence. To the end, Benn was a fluent and persuasive speaker, and the opportunity to hold forth uninterrupted for 95 minutes must have pleased the old pipe puffer immensely.

Glasgow Film Theatre, today and tomorrow; Filmhouse, Edinburgh, 2-6 November

Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (PG)

* * *

Eleven-year-old Alexander (Ed Oxenbould) endures 24 hours of playground humiliations, a dental filling and lima beans for dinner. When his jolly family (Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner) fail to empathise, he wishes that they could share his pain. Contains a lot of slapstick and a kangaroo.

General release

The Calling (15)

* * *

A veteran cop (Susan Sarandon) with a bad back and a worse attitude manages to hide her booze and pills habit in a bucolic low-crime neighbourhood, until a serial killer arrives and starts despatching victims in gruesome ritualised ways. A great cast of senior actors, including Donald Sutherland and Ellen Burstyn, elevates this familiar Se7en-style pulp.

General release

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (3D) (12A)

* * *

Turtle power returns with this noisy origins story of four mutant terrapins – Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael – and their lab rat father figure. It’s supposedly based on Eastman and Laird’s comic books, although this relaunch of the Turtles seems genetically closer to Transformers, since both franchises feature tinny laddish banter, extensive action sequences, Megan Fox, plus Michael Bay as producer. Frenetic, frictionless and fine for kids who don’t find a turtle lusting after a Fox to be unnerving.

General release