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Berlinale 2014: Two Men in Town, '71 | reviews, news & interviews

Berlinale 2014: Two Men in Town, '71

Berlinale 2014: Two Men in Town, '71

Brenda Blethyn feisty in New Mexico; divided Belfast traumatic for Jack O'Connell

Caught between the lines: Jack O'Connell in Yann Demange's '71

The opening days of the Berlinale have seen mixed reactions to high-profile English-language offerings. With its stylish sense of mittelEuropa, the festival’s premiere, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, apparently went down a treat. Much less kudos, though, went to George Clooney’s The Monuments Men (released in the UK this week, reviewed on theartsdesk today).

More interesting, though not completely satisfying, was Rachid Bouchareb’s Two Men in Town (***), part of the Franco-Algerian director’s continuing exploration of the interaction between Islam and contemporary America. Bouchareb was last at Berlin in 2009 with the post-London bombings story London River, and one of its stars, Brenda Blethyn, reunites with him for a feisty role in Two Men that more than holds the attention, even up against the film’s main star, Forest Whitaker.

Whitaker plays William Garnett (pictured below right), newly released from a New Mexico jail after serving 18 years for the murder of a local deputy sheriff: while inside he converted to Islam, and he departs the place with every intention of living in peace. The trouble is that he’s on parole for three years, meaning he has to stay in the area, which doesn’t bode well given that the town sheriff (a laconic Harvey Keitel, under-impressive) is still in charge, and far from inclined to give Garnett the chance to make good.

But he’s got a formidable ally in his parole officer Emily Smith (Blethyn), newly relocated to the state; she’s determined to treat her charges with rather more empathy than seems usually to be the case in these parts, including affording them basic trust. Garnett gets a job as a cowhand, and moves (with implausible speed) into a relationship with a girl in the bank, Teresa (Dolores Heredia, returning from Bouchareb’s best-known film Days of Grace).

It looks as if Garnett may come through with a chance, despite the unwelcome attention of the local law-enforcers. But it’s the presence of criminal friends, engaged (among other things) in smuggling immigrants across the border, from his past life that will really test Garnett’s resolve not to return to crime.

Whitaker plays strongly, quietly, a man whose religion isn’t finally enough to calm his inner violence (human actions, anyway, somehow seem insignificant when set against these enormous empty desert landscapes). But, moments of eruption aside, he’s a passive figure, unlike Blethyn's parole officer. She’s brimming with no-nonsense, frequently confrontational energy, almost bursting out of substantial costumes, and every bit the match in the ironic drawl stakes for Keitel’s sheriff. Blethyn is far and away the most insistent force of life to cross the screen, and a world away from the very English roles we know her best for.

Bouchareb’s film has the alternative French-language title La voie de l’ennemi, or Enemy Way. The phrase could almost double for ’71 (****), the first feature from France’s Yann Demange, who’s now British-based, and best known as director of series one of Channel 4’s seering Top Boy. That famously caught the violent conflicts between street gangs in East London, and ’71, scripted by Gregory Burke, is set in Belfast in the year of the film’s title. The Berlinale seems to attract the best of British Ulster-themed film drama, witnessed by the victory of Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday here a decade ago, but Demange’s film is more personal than documentary.

It’s centred around a powerful performance from Jack O’Connell (pictured above left), who’s moved a huge step beyond his previous less distinguished film and television work, as Gary Hook, for whom the best way out of the children’s home in which he grew up comes with enlistment into the army. But rather than an expected assignment in Germany, his platoon are sent off for their first posting to Belfast, where Hook goes through a baptism of fire. With commanding officers portrayed as an ineffective bunch, the first mission they are sent on, to support the police making house searches, ends disastrously when Hook and a fellow soldier are separated from the company, and fall into IRA hands.

Hook manages to escape that one, but he’s still out on his own in the mean streets of divided Belfast, lost in a bewildering twilight zone in which he’s pursued by all sides. Even the efforts of the British army to find him are double-edged, since he’s stumbled on undercover army groupings infiltrating the partisan conflict. ‘71 captures powerfully the visceral, nightmare experience of being on your own in unfamiliar surroundings, where no one’s support can be relied on. There's darkness and damage everywhere: Demange’s film debut is impressive.

Blethyn is a world away from the very English roles we know her best for

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