DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The streets of Northern Ireland in 1971 are the setting for the new film "'71," in which Jack O'Connell, best known for his starring role in "Unbroken," plays an English soldier cut off from his unit in the middle of a riot. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The most powerful thing about the Belfast, Northern Ireland, period thriller "'71" is that no one dies well. In outline, this is a conventional and a smashingly good chase melodrama. But it's also a tragedy, from the first face-off between the British army and a mob of Catholic men, women and children who get in the soldiers' faces and draw first blood, to the heart-stopping climax in a ruined pub. By then, the protagonist Gary Hook, wounded British private, trapped behind what I'll reluctantly call enemy lines - reluctant because it's the Catholics' home turf - is battered in ways from which he'll never recover, even if his body survives.
Private Hook is played by Jack O'Connell, who had a huge, volatile presence in the prison drama "Starred Up," but seemed muted as Louis Zamperini in "Unbroken." The American accent and the way he was shot to be an archetypal, clean-cut Yank neutered his natural temperament. He doesn't have many lines in "'71," and at first he's just another beefy Brit in a beret, but he grows more and more vivid. His terror and helplessness becomes primal and somehow poetic. Gary Hook has arrived in Belfast with no strong politics, no mandate except getting home to his little brother, who lives, for reasons that aren't explained, in a locked facility where Gary was once a resident, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "'71")
O'CONNELL: (As Gary Hook) Listen, I don't want you worried about me, OK? I'll be fine. I promise you. Now come on, eat up. I'm not even leaving the country, so you've got nothing to worry about. Got a girlfriend?
HARRY VERITY: (As Darren) No.
O'CONNELL: (As Gary Hook) No? Let me see your teeth - you liar.
EDELSTEIN: Many Northern Ireland-set TV, plays and films haven't been widely seen outside the UK, so I'm not sure how common it is to see the days leading up to the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre through the eyes of sympathetic English soldiers. Bloody Sunday isn't depicted in "'71," but Belfast is a war zone and near to boiling over. That said, as the English prepare to move into an Irish Catholic stronghold, their aristocratic lieutenant, played by Sam Reid, speaks in ways that could be called liberal.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "'71")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Look lively.
SAM REID: (As Lieutenant Armitage) Are we expecting a riot, Sergeant?
O'CONNELL: (As Gary Hook) I thought that we should be prepared, sir.
REID: (As Lieutenant Armitage) Today's operation should be to assist the IUC in conducting a house search in the Catholic community. I want berets, Sergeant, no riot gear.
O'CONNELL: (As Gary Hook) You sure, sir?
REID: (As Lieutenant Armitage) We need to go out there and reassure people. We're here to protect them. We need to look them in the eye and tell them that.
O'CONNELL: (As Gary Hook) Carry on.
EDELSTEIN: Screenwriter Gregory Burke created a celebrated play called "Black Watch" that told the stories of Scottish soldiers stationed in Iraq. And while "'71" is much more formulaic, Burke shows the same curiosity about the inner dynamics of groups on both sides of a conflict. The Irish Republican Army is Gary's most dangerous adversary. They hunt for him after an especially violent IRA man played by Killian Scott shoots another private in the face. But there's also wanton killing by undercover English officers and loyalists who conspire to blow up Catholic civilians. The entire populace is deformed by hatred, even a tough-talking little boy played by Corey McKinley, who leads Hook to the temporary safety of a loyalist pub. When Gary is badly wounded and taken in by two Catholic good Samaritans, one of them, a young woman, is so terrified of being branded a traitor that she wants to give him up at once.
"'71" is the first theatrical feature by Yan Demange, who uses the handheld camera sparingly but surely and creates an overpowering sense of menace. The movie isn't an original. Gary's odyssey doesn't have the mythic strangeness of Carol Reed's 1947 masterpiece "Odd Man Out" in which a mortally wounded IRA fighter, played by James Mason, moves through a demented underworld. But Demange and Burke use their hero as a way into an entire poisoned ecosystem. When Gary stabs someone who would have surely killed him, he and his enemy stare into each other's eyes as if they know they're the same human being.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's show, Terry speaks with Jonathan Banks, who played a private eye/fixer in "Breaking Bad." He reprises the role in the prequel "Better Call Saul." She'll also talk with the show's co-creator and writer Peter Gould. Hope you can join us then. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.