In his feature length debut, Yann Demange’s action thriller takes us to the height of the Troubles in Belfast where political conflict lasted for over a quarter of a century. We witness the hostilities through the fearful eyes of a young British soldier called Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) whose squad is caught in the middle of a riot, and who is accidentally left behind by his unit after events go terribly awry. As he desperately tries to get back to his barracks and fights for survival, he becomes embroiled in a local war of corruption and betrayal. This is a brutally realistic depiction of terror, enhanced by yet another stunning performance from one of Britain’s best.
There is a patient build-up as we’re first introduced to Private Gary Hook, and we get vital glimpses of his youthful innocence before he is thrust into the face of danger. The grainy cinematography as well as the shaky camera techniques assist in creating a pragmatically dangerous environment. An excellent chase sequence had me gripped as the protagonist is hunted down by a ruthless gang of nationalists. Tension drops slightly as Hook meets a young impressionable protestant who seems born to hate the ‘fenian bastards’ as he so eloquently, and continuously puts it. Their brief encounter offers the only glimmer of humour as the youngster struts the dishevelled streets like a mafia boss, but the friendship is brought to an abrupt, shocking climax which highlights the atmosphere of the film and illustrates how treacherous the situation was in Northern Ireland at that time.
In a role much more subtle and understated than we are used to, Jack O’Connell is excellent. With very little dialogue, his performance relies on his range of expression as well as his general screen presence. Earlier this year, we saw him in Starred Up as a disturbed prisoner, visceral and violent. Here, he is vulnerable, and lost in a antagonistic environment that he knows little about. Support comes in force from Paul Anderson and Sean Harris as crooked figures of authority. Harris’ squirrel faced villain is chilling, and with trouble around every corner, so-called factions are paper thin as every character seems willing to stab their allies in the back. The final third plays out a little predictably, though not without moments on extreme intensity as all sides close in on Hook and each other.
The focus of the thriller as a whole leans less on being a story of the Troubles as such, and more a survival movie as the lead is attacked from all angles throughout. It marks an impressive foray into cinema for the director Demange, who along with writer Gregory Burke and composer David Holmes, captures the threatening mood brilliantly. The main strength of the piece is the central turn from O’Connell. We’ll see him on the big screen again soon, this time as an American soldier in Angelina Jolie’s WWII directorial debut Unbroken, which demonstrates the impact he is having within the industry. Until then, we can celebrate the year he has in British film – the rising star has reached new heights.