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My 12 for ’14: ’71 and Claustrophobic Thrills…

With 2014 coming to a close, we’re counting down our top twelve films of the year. Check back daily for the latest featured film.

A large part of what makes ’71 so effective is the fact that is as interested in constructing a claustrophobic thriller as it is in making a clear political statement. Although it is set in Belfast in 1971, the movie has more in common with The Raid or Dredd than it does to Shadow Dancer. The movie is essentially a survival horror about a British soldier separated from his regiment, struggling to survive in hostile territory. There is a universality to the story, creating a sense that it could just as easily have been set in Basra a couple of years ago as Belfast several decades back.

’71 moves with an incredible and visceral energy, building up momentum across its relatively lean hundred-minute runtime as it presents a fugitive being chased through hostile territory by both sides locked in a bloody and bitter generational feud. Of course, ’71 is inherently political – as any movie set in any equivalent environment must be. ’71 eschews divisions between Republicans and Loyalists – between members of the Irish Republican Army and the various arms of British authority operating in the city.

71b’71 does not bother itself with the particulars of this conflict; it is not particularly engaged with any claim to the moral (or political) high ground or the long list of atrocities perpetrated by both sides as part of this extended campaign. Instead, ’71 is a cynical look at how these cycles of violence inevitably perpetuate themselves, from the young boy casually indoctrinated into the feud to the desperate attempts to cover up state-sanctioned support for terrorist violence through to manipulation of the local community to stoke the flames.

Violence begets violence is one of the oldest cinematic morals, but it also one of the truest; one that resonates as much in the context of the film’s setting as it does in the world to which the film was released. It would not be too difficult to transpose ’71 to another time and place. Of course, doing so would lose a lot of the wonderful detail present in ’71. The film carefully (and atmospherically) transforms Blackburn in Lancashire into seventies Belfast, a city lit by the harsh neon street-lamps and oil-drum fires; a town under siege.

71d

It is amazing to think that ’71 marks the feature film debut of director Yann Demange, who crafts a beautifully claustrophobic and nightmarish thriller. Demange had worked on a number of shorts and television shows before this point, but ’71 is a staggeringly confident theatrical debut. Despite working on a tight budget, Demange lends the film an impressive scale – making the city seem like a hostile labyrinth filled with darkness and populated by deadly threats to our hero.

This is perhaps the most striking aspect of ’71. For all that it offers an exploration of big themes about the nature of these sorts of conflicts, it is a superbly-crafted thriller. It is tense, nerve-wracking, exciting, uncomfortable, visceral. Demange makes sure that the audience feels every moment of terror along with Gary. In mood and tone, ’71 feels akin to a zombie movie or a confined thriller; Gary is boxed in with an entire city out for his blood. ’71 benefits from exceptional execution and the clever decision to transpose those genre elements into an uncomfortably grounded and familiar setting.

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’71 is a claustrophobic triumph.

You might be interested in the rest of our countdown:

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