’71 (2014)

★★★★

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'71 PosterDirector: Yann Demange

Release Date: 10th October, 2014 (UK); February 27th, 2015 (US limited)

Genre: Action; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris, Richard Dormer, Charlie Murphy

Yann Demange’s ’71 centres on the exploits of a British Army regiment deployed in Belfast shortly after the onset of The Troubles. More precisely, it tails separated officer Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) as he roams the city’s broken pavements during one of the most volatile periods in Northern Ireland’s history. “Catholics and Protestants living side by side at each other’s throats,” is the takeaway from a brief history lesson. What follows is an all too resonant practical class.

The lesson also informs us of the Falls Road, Belfast’s very own Berlin Wall, and the flats that occupy said road — turns out these have been rented with force by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Catholic side of the conflict. Hook’s regiment is allied with the Protestant side, though working relationships do exist between less extreme members of each division. The British Army are in Belfast to alleviate homegrown conflict, apparently, but when an arms raid goes wrong Hook finds himself alone and in dire straits.

The streets look suitably war-scarred: plumes of black smoke emanating from bombed artefacts constantly pollute the air and the pavements are stained with charred rubble. At the beginning of the film, we see the squad’s intense training regime via a collection of vignettes kinetically sewn together by editor Chris Wyatt (his efforts emphasise just how gruelling the occupation is). These vignettes also promote teamwork, endurance, and the need to fulfil objectives no matter the cost. When the action kicks off, the implementation of such a tough training schedule is quickly justified — a Children of Men-esque chase sequence through decrepit buildings missing internal walls and any sense of homeliness attests to that.

Both factions are shown to be as bad as each other. Soldiers treat women and children (and men) unethically while IRA crowds attack them with bricks, and worse. An atmosphere of hatred fills the screen and the film bloodily obliges, depicting barbarous acts with gruesome consequences. Even apparent teammates struggle to get along: danger is literally around every corner, funded mostly by Provisional IRA youths who refuse to take direction from David Wilmot’s senior IRA member. There isn’t enough time to sufficiently define secondary characters, though Wilmot is effective. So too is Sean Harris, who facially muscles his way through the piece as British Army Captain Sandy Browning.

I was reminded of Lexi Alexander’s football hooligan drama Green Street throughout: pubs recalibrated as bases; untameable urban infection; youngsters shadily mentored; unruly masses bombarding boulevards. The difference is ’71 works on a more striking level because the stakes are far higher. Despite this, good also prevails on both sides. “You’re just a piece of meat to them,” says one kind-hearted stranger to Hook, referring to the latter’s army superiors. Said stranger is Eamon (Richard Dormer), a passer-by who treats Hook in his home with the help of his daughter (Charlie Murphy) despite their ideological differences. He’s right too; faceless pawns dominate both sides in a personal war fought through impersonal battles.

Corey McKinley has a short and feisty stint as a young Loyalist child, adding a dash of humour to proceedings. Jack O’Connell conveys enough humanity through his actions and speech for us to root for him, though his goodness is primarily bolstered by the evil prerogative of those around him. In focusing its efforts almost exclusively on its cat-and-mouse narrative, the film’s straightforward approach doesn’t leave much room for deep thought, though a few thematic layers are in there for those after something more extensive to chew on (shades of grey, violence breeding violence etc).

David Holmes’ pulsating score ratchets up the existing tension to an even greater level — this tension, coupled with the film’s revenge-thriller element, reflects Jeremy Saulnier’s taut indie darling Blue Ruin. And much like Blue Ruin, ’71 benefits from some assured directorial guidance. Demange flirts with psychological horror (a chilliness assisted in large part by the eerie nighttime setting), but the film is a thriller at heart and a damn good one.

It can be difficult to keep track of the various warring factions’ motives and the conclusion doesn’t offer much in the way of a relieving resolution (given the film is set at the beginning of The Troubles, this can’t really be helped). “It was a confused situation,” rings out towards the end and ’71 attests to exactly that in its presentation of an unstable Northern Ireland. The film itself is far from confused though, playing with a confident directness and winning as a result.

'71 - Jack O'Connell

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): StudioCanal

Macbeth (2015)

★★★★

Macbeth PosterDirector: Justin Kurzel

Release Date: October 2nd, 2015 (UK); December 4th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Drama; War

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard

Justin Kurzel’s ferocious take on Macbeth begins and ends with death. Though its Shakespearean format might isolate those who aren’t well-versed in the Bard’s prose, the film attains a degree of accessibility by dealing in brute force and thematic clarity. We see a Star Wars-esque information trail at the start, but this time the text is in blood red. Jed Kurzel, Justin’s brother, concocts a score that drills and hammers in tandem with bellowing battle cries, bestowing total discomfort upon us. Writers Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff, and Michael Lesslie opt to examine how the loss of innocence can incite the immoral side of power, and the results are unflinching.

Upon discovering he is destined to be king, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) weighs up the immediacy of his sure-fire thronage. Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) urges her husband to commit treasonous murder, to speed up the process by killing King Duncan (David Thewlis). Convinced, and perhaps driven by grief brought about by the death of his own child, the Thane of Scotland slays his superior. From then we see the man crumble, haunted by visions of dead clansmen he swore to protect in battle. He becomes a mad king increasingly propelled by unfettered impulsion and corrupted by power (“Full of scorpions, is my mind”).

Kurzel’s film will likely appeal to a specific audience; attempts to widen its potential reach are few and far between. Ye who enter devoid of prior knowledge, like myself, will have to contend with a movie that communicates entirely through the diction of Shakespeare. As such, it functions much in the same way a foreign language piece without subtitles would, which might alienate some viewers. It shouldn’t though. Blindly following the story is never too difficult as the actors offer a tangible, precise translation. It’s a testament to the performances of Fassbender and Cotillard in particular that the narrative is sold to us without a verbal parachute.

With Fassbender, it’s all in the eyes. His Macbeth, a brooding warrior at the fore, grows bags that darken beneath increasingly absent pupils as the pressure of sovereignty takes over. We never really know where we stand with him — his irreverent actions eventually hit a point of no return, but until then there’s a sorrowful tragedy surrounding Macbeth. In a case of role-reversal, it is Lady Macbeth who must take on the burden of regret. Cotillard is more subtle than her male counterpart. Her words, though often beautiful, are enshrouded in hysteria and pain; the camera unblinkingly lingers on her face during a scene towards the end as the actor speaks with utter command, evoking genuine heartbreak.

The framework from which the duo perform is comparable to how Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones navigated The Theory of Everything: one exercises true physicality while the other evokes a delicate-yet-purposeful poise. There is often a lingering stillness that is only interrupted by Fassbender’s increasingly perturbed movement, and only Cotillard has the guile to reign in said eccentricity. Friend-turned-foe Macduff, played by an emotionally-wrought Sean Harris, christens Macbeth the “Fiend of Scotland”.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising might have been a touchpoint for Kurzel, especially in a visual sense: the unquenchable mist, the moorish setting, the breadth of visceral savagery, all invoked. Battle scenes could very well be taking place among the Dead Marshes on the boggy road to Mordor. The Scottish setting, not unlike modern times, is always cloudy, or rainy, or dank, but the aesthetic is never mundane — fog is crimson coloured and dynamic. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw mixes steady shots with a shaky cam effect, mirroring the vacillating levels of order and chaos afoot.

Arkapaw shot the soon-to-be iconic six-minute drug den raid in True Detective season one, and Macbeth revels in similar technical prowess. From sound, to look, to how the film is edited, it’s quite stunning. Scenes showing brutal murder, such as the death of King Duncan, are intercut with instances of solemn hush. A contrast is evident throughout, pitting light against dark (or perhaps it is dark against post-dark). The sound design is worth mentioning too: rallying howls echo with spine-tingling reverence around cavernous cathedral-like rooms.

To the credit of those on and off-screen, it never feels like we’re watching a play. In many ways this is a niche offering; much of the verbiage might not make sense, yet you can’t help but stare. And when what you’re staring at is this good, this impactful, words are almost inconsequential. Here are two more anyway: Hail Macbeth!

Macbeth - Michael Fassbender & Marion Cotillard

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company