A bold, visceral debut with another charismatic performance from a rising star.
BUT not without its imperfections.
Firstly, it helps to have some insight into the Troubles of ’71. Now my knowledge is sparse but despite not being alive at the time, that doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the conflict that ensued between England and Ireland.
Now writer Gregory Burke and director Yann Demange (Dead Set) leave little explanation throwing you and our protagonist into the heated confusing mess that was the conflict in Belfast. All that is established is a map highlighting the areas to avoid at all costs. The areas seized by the Irish nationalists who were perceived by the British as the enemy.
The confusion is merely one of a number of revelations. So what’s it all about? A young and disoriented British soldier (Jack O’Connell) is accidentally abandoned by his unit following a riot on the deadly streets of Belfast in 1971.
We start with a slow opening as O’Connell visits his son while awaiting his next mission. At first, I was a little unsure with O’Connell’s delivery. He seemed to mumble and mope around. But as the scene progressed, O’Connell excelled. I was afraid that O’Connell would be typecast as the cocky hot head after Skins and Starred Up but the character of Gary Cook was a complete change of tempo.
The treatment of the British soldiers as they entered Belfast was harrowing and unsettling. The children swearing and throwing excrement was an unpleasant sight. The women grabbing saucepans and dustbin lids to warn the men of the incoming troops was tense and . . . irritating as hell (What?)
The slow build up as the masses continue to grow around the military vehicles was excruciating. Excruciating in the sense that all you can do is wait for it all to go up in smoke. The suspense brewing more and more as the tension reaches boiling point. As the orders became more and more misconstrued by the inexperienced Lieutenant Armitage (played perfectly by Sam Reid – The Riot Club), you find your loyalties divided.
However, the one who are routing for is Gary as he attempts to evade capture and get home. The chase sequences were intense and frantic. At times, the shaky camerawork was a little unsettling as you couldn’t see who was where.
It’s slow burning, at times tense and suspenseful. But for a 99 minute film, it felt a lot longer. The parts in which Gary is hiding (Several in fact) seemed to hit lulls. Where I was originally engrossed and held in suspense on Gary’s fate, I felt my mind wandering as the ongoing conversations between the nationalists and the Military Reaction Force seemed to run down familiar lines.
Despite being eerily realistic, it was also very predictable with the inevitable backstabbing. A sign of the times in this current day and age with paranoia, suspicions and backroom dealing ever present in politics. One thing that I can commend Burke and Demange for is capturing the dilapidated wasteland of the captured areas in Belfast and providing the opportunity for a talented cast to bring such characters to life.
The Military Reaction Force certainly didn’t portray Britain in the best of lights but with questionable motives and hidden agendas, I wasn’t surprised. Sean Harris (Prometheus) was perfectly cast as the shady Captain Browning. If anyone can play a creepy double crosser, it’s him.
There were surprises along the way with people you wouldn’t expect coming to Gary’s aid. Corey McKinley made a memorable impression as the loyalist kid. His acting was superb and quite comical, lightening the tone. It was great to see a talented cast of British actors and actresses, who have been popping up on the telly, get the opportunity to shine; Paul Anderson (Peaky Blinders), Sam Hazeldine (Resurrection) and Charlie Murphy (Happy Valley).
The final 15 minutes came out of nowhere. Nail-bitingly tense with more ‘shoot em ups and backstabbing than The Departed and the conclusion certainly made for sombre viewing. Burke and Demange were not afraid to hold back the punches in commenting on a political minefield.
A bold, if a little drawn out, screen debut from a promising director and a stellar performance from a rising star.
O’Connell will certainly be one to look out for in the foreseeable future.