Yann Demange’s directorial feature debut, set in Belfast in…you guessed it, 1971 when during a riot, a young and inexperienced British soldier is separated from his unit and left to fend for himself at the height of The Troubles, surrounded by danger and violence. Starring Jack O’Connell, Sam Reid, Sean Harris, Sam Hazeldine and Paul Anderson.
O’Connell is a young actor on an upwards trajectory, cracking his way into Hollywood but not forgetting his roots, by being in films such as this one. His performance as Private Hook follows his regular show of talent, that has great vulnerability, strength and determination to survive. O’Connell manages to give several layers to his character despite his sadly fairly much more limited than expected screen time, he is still certainly the main character but it is far from just his story, which is a shame. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag, Harris follows his usual pattern and gives nothing out of the ordinary which is not unexpected and the same could be said for Anderson because much of the acting feels as though not much is being asked of them. The exceptions to that are Richard Dormer and Charlie Murphy playing father and daughter and some of the very few to attempt to help our stranded soldier, their performances give more emotion and depth than a lot of the rest of the cast put together which results in some of the best parts of the film.
It seems strange at first glance for a French-English director to be tackling a big part of Northern Irish history, not appearing to have a huge connection to the issues that the film tackles but visually as well as the created atmosphere of chaos and violence are done well. However the film has several points in which it struggles, the choice to assume knowledge of The Troubles on the part of the audience rather than integrating any information early on in the film will isolate a portion of the audience to whom it may be difficult to differentiate between the different sides of the fight and could have actually been a relatively easy fix. Secondly the creation of brotherly bond in respects of the military foundations of the film are lacking, which makes the film struggle to evoke sympathy. As said the film does not exclusively focus on O’Connell’s character and the shifts from different aspects of the story, while not inherently difficult to follow make the film feel confused as to what is really important. There are senses of tension, risk and suspense to the film but they occur much too late, introducing those elements more effectively earlier in the story would have been a huge improvement. The last but very much secondary problem that the film suffers from is a bad score, the feelings that the scenes are attempting to provoke are undermined by a heavy handed score, better choices could have done much to improve the intensity of the film.
While the film has good intentions and the potential of which began to be realised towards the end of the film, for the majority it feels relatively muddled and lacking depth. The intensity that should go along with this film simply isn’t present for the most part and pulling the focus away from O’Connell’s character, who is clearly the strongest of the film, gives the feeling of two stories being half told. This was a tall order for a director whose biggest project had been the much forgotten but, at the time, well received Channel 4 zombie mini-series Dead Set, and it appears to have been one he just couldn’t quite achieve; in more experienced hands this film could have possibly been one not to forget.