Through films such as Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father, James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer, and, especially, Paul Greengrass’s Golden Bear winner Bloody Sunday, the conflict in Northern Ireland has been well represented in the Berlinale’s Competition section over the years. The latest, Yann Demange’s Belfast-set ’71, which premiered on the second day of this year’s festival, is an assured debut with riveting action sequences, but it fails to live up to its predecessors owing to a problematic approach to the politically charged material.
Young English recruit Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), fresh out of training, has just been dispatched to Belfast. On his first day, his unit is sent to search a house for weapons, a mission that quickly spirals out of control as a riot erupts outside. Outnumbered and unprepared, the soldiers are forced to flee and in the commotion Hook gets left behind, finding himself stranded in a de facto war zone where everyone is intent on killing him. The house search and ensuing riot, which culminates in Hook’s breakneck escape through back alleys and bombed-out buildings, are extraordinary. Heavily indebted to Greengrass’s handheld, in-the-moment aesthetic, these sequences throw the viewer into the middle of the action, masterfully conveying the soldiers’ complete disorientation and escalating panic as the tension rises to an almost unbearable pitch before exploding into full-blown terror. Once night falls and Hook tries to find his way back to base, however, the film makes an infelicitous switch of register from realism to genre piece.
The tonal shift is made visible in the switch from grainy, period-evoking 16mm to digital, giving a cool and contemporary urban sheen to Belfast’s nighttime streets with a moody yellow glow more lush and pervasive than any streetlamp might produce. As in a Walter Hill cat-and-mouse game, no matter where in the city the hero decides to hide, his pursuers will inevitably find him, the net steadily tightening as the story heads toward a showdown. Demange’s direction remains proficient throughout, but as the role of the civil conflict is increasingly relegated to that of exotic backdrop, the film tends to favor shock as its mode of commentary: children ripped apart in explosions, adolescents brutally murdered. These deaths and the violently sobering ordeal inflicted on the angel-faced naïf Hook are supposed to underline the senselessness of war and the victimization of the youth in its service, but the message is compromised by the thrilling delivery.
By contrast, a film that was in desperate need of excitement was Rachid Bouchareb’s Competition entry Two Men in Town, a redundant remake of the 1973 film starring Alain Delon and Jean Gabin. A man is released from prison after an 18-year stint for murder and his ambition to start a new and honest life is thwarted by his inability to escape from his past. The bland and uneventful script does nothing to update or revitalize this overly familiar premise and the story crawls to its foregone conclusion while the one-dimensional characters do little besides spout dialogue too trite even for the stellar cast—Forest Whitaker, Harvey Keitel, Luis Guzmán, Brenda Blethyn, and Ellen Burstyn—to deliver with conviction.
Monotony and wasted acting talent were certainly not issues for one of this year’s most highly anticipated films: Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, screened in its original, uncut version. One can only hope that the fully realized film—a glorious achievement—will eventually be seen as widely as possible. (Reports are that it might.) Adapted from a French graphic novel, the film is set in a dystopian near-future in which the entire Earth has succumbed to a new ice age and the last surviving humans have taken refuge in a train forever circling the planet (powered by a perpetual motion machine). The lower classes, forcibly segregated in the disgusting, slum-like back end of the train, start an uprising and fight their way to the front to seize control of the train from their tyrannical elite.
While pacing has not always been Bong’s strong suit, Snowpiercer’s two-hour running time has nary a dull moment. The exhilarating action is coupled to an intricate and involving narrative peppered with both mordant humor and affecting pathos. Bong, whose 2006 film The Host remains the highest-grossing film in his country’s history, expertly juggles beautifully executed, truly breathtaking fighting sequences, and detailed yet elegantly deployed exposition. The large array of characters, each one finely drawn and highly original, is incarnated with much panache and visible enjoyment by the outstanding international cast, which in addition to a remarkably subtle Chris Evans in the lead includes Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Ewen Bremner, Octavia Spencer alongside Bong regular Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung (Song's on-screen daughter in The Host).
The train itself is a marvel of production design, and as the characters press on, it’s a thrill to discover the entirely different, fantastically conceived, and gorgeously realized world within each new wagon. Beyond the miserable austerity of the slum cars lie locales as varied as a candy-colored classroom worthy of Wes Anderson; an aquarium car filled with exotic fish; a wood-paneled, Old World carriage reminiscent of the Orient Express; and a futuristic nightclub with a drug-fueled rave in full swing. Far from presenting a challenge for audiences in Iowa and Oklahoma (as Weinstein put it), Snowpiercer, properly handled, would provide a much-needed reminder of the rich potential of the action thriller in the right hands.