Going Back to '71

Martin McCann on starring in Yann Demange's debut feature which 'searches for Truth' amid the Troubles

There is a brilliantly observed moment in the initial stages of Yann Demange’s spectacularly kinetic feature film ’71, during which one of the Troubles’ crueler ironies is laid bare in stark, simple terms.

Awoken by their terse sergeant major, a group of British squaddies, including Jack O’Connell’s Gary Hook, are informed of their imminent departure for the broiling sectarian hothouse that is Belfast, 1971. Greeted with blank stares, the older man must speak plainly: ‘Do any of you know where Belfast is? Northern Ireland? The United Kingdom? Here?’

That early scene offers a perfect précis of the military experience in the Northern Ireland context; many a young soldier – callow, unworldly, ignorant – was left bewildered by our late unpleasantness.

The dangers of remaining confused in this alien and divided, though officially domestic, terrain is a theme on which Demange dwells more than little. ‘You’ll not be leaving the country,’ growls the sergeant, by way of explanation and context. It cannot begin to untangle the web.

A tightly wound thriller of quite astonishing quality, Demange’s Troubles-based debut plays out through Hook’s grunt’s-eye view. Plunged into the fury of a sudden riot, he becomes separated from his unit, precipitating a searing game of pursuit through a maze of back streets and alleyways, paramilitaries on his trail.

As with Steve McQueen, the Oscar-winning auteur behind the seminal Hunger, Paris-born Demange comes at this milieu from a fresh angle. For Belfast actor Martin McCann, who portrays the murderous Paul Haggerty, that point is especially resonant. ‘Sometimes it takes an outsider’s set of eyes to get a fresh look at the situation,’ observes the 31-year-old.

In McCann's estimation, nuance is among ’71’s most distinguishing attributes. Demange and screenwriter Gregory Burke – whose play, Black Watch, captured the gritty realities of army life on the bottom rung – have presented something far more thoughtful than many a movie concerning itself with the complexities of Northern Ireland’s past.

‘This film searches for the truth,’ suggests McCann, a native of Divis in west Belfast – the crucial setting, ironically enough, for a harrowing finale. ‘Here we have a young soldier, just a young lad, a likeable lad, who is thrown into the middle of a conflict that he knows nothing about. He has nothing to do with it, other than being in the British army.’

McCann praises the fair-handed depiction at the heart of Demange’s story and the rounded characterisation applied even to those pursuing the nominal hero. ‘We see things from the perspective of the young IRA members. These are just kids, with faces, personalities and backgrounds. They live in an unnatural situation.’

On ‘71 more broadly, McCann describes it as ‘a study of character over a study of the Northern Irish Troubles. That lends itself to a more interesting watch.’ Steering clear of unnecessary commentary, the director is focused, McCann says, on plot rather than politics. ‘It’s 100 minutes of action that doesn’t lie. It’s airtight, contained. What is remarkable is that Yann has made something like this as a first feature.’

Indeed, the latter’s presence was decisive. ‘It was the project that attracted me, the director,’ McCann recalls. ‘They were the two most exciting things about it.’

Given the fact that McCann has worked with as varied a stable of filmmakers as Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks (on HBO’s The Pacific), the late Sir Richard Attenborough (Closing the Ring) and French action exponent Louis Leterrier (Clash of the Titans), his appreciation for Demange’s vision is significant.

Shooting took place in Blackburn, Liverpool and Sheffield, where the landmark Park Hill estate stood in for the once iconic, now demolished, Divis Flats. Capturing the particular essence of that time presents its own challenges, of course – not all portraits rise to meet them.

Nevertheless, McCann was impressed by how the production managed to convey a level of realism in keeping with his home turf’s peculiar urban environment (one short interlude shows the clueless troops receiving a Newsround-style, paint-by-numbers briefing on where they may and may not go in the city).

'Everything about it was very authentic.’ Save for a few minor tweaks, McCann adds, ‘the accuracy is pretty goddamn good'. In order to maintain that sense of authenticity, Demange also enlisted the talents of Belfast-born composer David Holmes, who scored the film and recently described working with Demange one of 'the most wonderful' experiences of his filmmaking career thus far.

McCann is keen to stress the distinction between the instant picture and McQueen’s aforementioned take on the grim days of the Maze hunger strikes. ‘This doesn’t need to be compared to Hunger,’ he says, underlining their respective places in separate genres. ‘They are very different.’

At the same time, however, he believes in their shared DNA. ‘In the last 10 years, ’71 and Hunger are certainly the two best films I’ve watched that relate to the Troubles.’

Alongside Richard Dormer, McCann is one of only two local actors to appear in a major role and he feels proud, therefore, to be associated with a drama that truly earned its Special Mention at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival. ‘I don’t think a British film has done that in 12 years,’ he concludes. 'So, you know, that’s decent enough.’

’71 goes on general release on October 10.