First time film director Yann Demange’s cat-and-mouse historical thriller is taut and assured, blending wrenching action sequences with emotional and historical authenticity. A Brit soldier (Jack O’Connell) detailed to Belfast in 1971 is stranded after a riot in the Catholic section, and he must negotiate an internal power struggle amongst IRA strongmen, retribution from Protestant terrorists, army incompetence, and double-dealings amongst the intelligence personnel that have rank over his unit, to get out alive.
Belfast is portrayed as nothing less than the white man’s Mogadishu, and while there are some intelligent exchanges in first-time screenwriter Gregory Burke’s script, thankfully, there is no time for an examination of the various political agendas and hypocrisies at play. Instead, the dismal backdrop of Belfast does most of the political talking, taking a backseat to the heart-pounding chase of O’Connell (who played the lead in Unbroken, so he’s created a niche for characters who have been put through the wringer). It’s realistic, engrossing and heart-pounding.
In an interview, Demange gives a sense of his perspective on balancing the historical and the dramatic:
At first you can say, “It’s ‘Apocalypto’ in Belfast!” And yes it is, but you can’t just exploit a recent and painful period in people’s lives to make a fucking genre picture. And we all knew that. So we knew it had the shape of a genre picture, that’s how we’ll get a 20-year-old to watch it. But it had to have an honesty, a humanity, a soul.
What was hardest was bringing in shades of grey. Because I’m not like a Greengrass, you know? I’m not that bright, I didn’t go to good schools, I’m not a historian. I’m not interested in lessons. I just wanted to connect in a human way.
And I really struggled, when I began, to understand the Loyalist point of view. It was all white noise when I grew up. I was born in Paris, and plonked into Streatham in the late ’70s, ending up in West London, and this thing was just on the news constantly. But no one in my house understood it, it was just, “there’s been another bomb” “Who is it?” “The IRA” “Oh right.” It was like hearing Brits trying to talk about the Algerian conflict: Algeria? Where’s that? Eastern Europe?
We were so parochial, you know? I was amazed how ignorant I was, once I started meeting people and talking about it. I had no idea the level of sectarian division. I had no idea, and why they don’t put it on the curriculum?
Demange does owes a bit to Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday and some more to the Red Riding trilogy, but his vision is unique. His camerawork alternates between shaky documentarian and lyrical, giving you a breather while amping up the suspense.
As with those films, I recommend use of the subtitles. I couldn’t understand a damn thing most folks were saying.