1971. The year that John Lennon released Imagine, The French Connection beat A Clockwork Orange to the Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and platform shoes became a popular fashion accessory in certain parts of the world. In the meantime, Northern Ireland was in turmoil, as the ethno-nationalist conflict reached a critical boiling point. Yann Demange’s powerful drama ’71 offers an alternative take on this impactful year, with The Troubles growing more vicious and destructive with every passing day.

Jack O’Connell plays Gary, a young soldier who is sent out to Belfast on his first assignment, though within a mere matter of days he is separated from his unit during some dangerous street riots, and after his compatriot is brutally murdered, Gary finds himself abandoned and on the run from a chasing pack of republicans, lead by the uncompromising James Quinn (Killian Scott). Though Gary’s lieutenant (Sam Reid) and undercover captain (Sean Harris) are desperately attempting to discover his whereabouts, Gary finds himself involved in a deadly game of cat and mouse.

From the very word go, ’71 is unrelentingly intense and suspenseful, while Demange’s shaky handheld camera work enhances the erratic, frantic nature of war and keeps up this uncomfortable ambiance. The picture is morbid and difficult to watch at times, and though perhaps Demange can be accused of not caring much for subtlety, he has a responsibility to portray this story authentically, even if that does mean not leaving too much to the imagination in his brutal depiction. That being said, unlike in many war movies, this is by no means a death by numbers piece, and each individual killing is a momentous event with severe implications, dwelled upon both narratively and emotionally.

To some extent, The Troubles are a mere backdrop to this tale, and we don’t delve too deeply into the political issues, focusing more on Gary’s survival and the dramatic chase that ensues. Thankfully the English soldiers aren’t glorified in any way, transpiring in a very unbiased and unpatriotic account, as Demange explores corruption from within, with monstrosities from both parties accounted for. On a more negative note, we don’t see enough of Gary prior to his abandonment, knowing so little about him as a result. He becomes a fugitive a little too early into proceedings, as we’re thrown into the deep end almost instantaneously, offering so little respite to the viewer. It’s an understated and subtle turn from O’Connell though, and what he may lack in dialogue, he makes up for in presence, as he has our attention (and support) from the very start through to the bitter end. Another brief mention must go to Richard Dormer who plays Eamon, a local resident who attempts to help Gary. Dormer is an actor with such humility and his involvement is welcomed to say the least.

Having been behind the popular TV series Top Boy, Demange has taken his move to the big screen with ease, telling an intimate tale amidst an imposing war-zone, which is no easy task. However his inexperience comes to light in his unclear intentions. To begin with ’71 is immensely naturalistic, yet as we progress towards the latter stages it grows so frustratingly cinematic, as we lose touch with reality completely. Gary is kept alive in ways more contrived than when Bond villains refuse to pull the trigger, always allowing enough time for an escape plan to unfold, or saviour to appear. Though losing the audience somewhat in such sequences, there is certainly enough about this young filmmaker to suggest a bright career beckons.