Entertainment & Arts

Jack O'Connell journeys into the Troubles of '71

Jack O'Connell in ' 71 Image copyright Publicity
Image caption 'This film shows the grim horror of what was going on in those times. Too often it gets swept under a rock and is never unearthed,' says Jack O'Connell of '71

Attempts from within the military and outside to "glamorise" army life are "disgusting", according to the star of a British thriller depicting life in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, and who almost joined the army due to a perceived "manipulated ideal".

'71, the debut feature film by French director Yann Demange, sees 24-year-old actor Jack O' Connell play Private Gary Hook, a teenage soldier from Derby who is sent to Belfast on a tour of duty in 1971, when some of the worst sectarian violence was taking place.

After a stand-off between the Royal Ulster Constabulary and residents of a Catholic neighbourhood, Private Hook is abandoned behind enemy lines, and at the mercy of extremists on both sides.

O'Connell, who also grew up in Derby, says he felt an affinity with the role - at the age of 15, he too seriously considered signing up to army life.

"I was a bit like Gary Hook, although definitely more educated on something like Northern Ireland because I'm half Irish," he says.

"But Gary's reason for joining the army isn't political, it's personal - he's searching for that sense of belonging.

"I was affected by the same kind of propaganda - there was a time in my life when I wanted to join the army, probably for all the wrong reasons, and now I feel that I dodged a bullet, quite literally.

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Image caption Jack O'Connell says '71 'tells some important truths'

"I was really susceptible to that false depiction of a glamorous military lifestyle. I hope this film, '71, gives a genuine insight into what they sign up for, not a manipulated ideal. In my opinion, it's quite disgusting."

Written by Scottish playwright Gregory Burke, and filmed in the North of England rather than in Belfast , '71 had a world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February this year.

Critics praised both the actor and the film, with the Daily Telegraph calling it "a stunningly well-crafted survival thriller".

Its star though, says the plot is secondary to the harsh reality of everyday life in 1970s Belfast, as portrayed in the film.

"I wouldn't watch a film that tried to glamorise this topic. Partly because of my Irish background - it would make me feel repulsed.

"However, this film shows the grim horror of what was going on in those times. Too often it gets swept under a rock and is never unearthed.

"Culture gives us the ability to document these things from an honest angle, not the one that is favoured from powerful people - perhaps those who were responsible for the conflict in the first place.

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Image caption Jack O'Connell will soon be seen in Unbroken, directed by Angelina Zolie, playing Louis Zamperini, the Olympic athlete taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War Two

"We've tried to be honest and unbiased and not accuse any sides, even though we choose to see everything from a British soldier's eyes.

"I don't think that even 40 years later there's enough water under the bridge that's gone by to just do a slick thriller. I've spent time in Belfast and I sense that to some people, those times are still very present. It would just be criminal to try and market something that was just downright insensitive.

"This though tells some important truths."

O'Connell, who made his movie debut as a teenager in 2006's film This is England by Shane Meadows, went on to star in the E4 series Skins and opposite Michael Caine in Harry Brown.

He received rave reviews last year for David Mackenzie's prison drama Starred Up, and has just completed filming the lead role of Louis Zamperini - the Olympic athlete taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War Two - on Angelina Jolie's biopic Unbroken.

With another part opposite Cara Delavigne for The Weinstein Company's adaptation of the novel Tulip Fever, the actor seems confirmed as a rising star.

But he adds that, as a teenager, he was a "bad boy" - which is why he sought to channel his energies into the military.

"I joined the Cadets in the hope of speeding up enrolment because I didn't have a spotless record, for one reason or another.

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Image caption 'I'm very glad to be sitting here as a man of 24, as an actor, hopefully portraying for the right reasons everything I thankfully avoided,' says Jack O'Connell who was once on the verge of joining the Army

"What changed my mind? Well, I guess I just listened to my mother in the end.

"I'm just glad I did listen to her and continued to act. I'm very glad to be sitting here as a man of 24, as an actor, hopefully portraying for the right reasons everything I thankfully avoided."

O'Connell describes his time working with Jolie, who directed him in the part of Louis Zamperini, as "really motivational - she's a real encourager, and she knows exactly what she wants on set."

But although he's prepared for intense scrutiny when it's released in December, he says " character" roles are what he wants to do.

"I just want to do parts where I feel I'm doing an important thing about telling the story.

"Right now I feel really lucky, I just want to keep my head down, and get on with the job."

'71 is screening at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 10 October in the UK.

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