’71’ at NYFF: ‘Unbroken’ star Jack O’Connell lays groundwork for Oscars

We have to wait till Christmas to see newcomer Jack O’Connell as an Olympian-turned-war hero in Angelina Jolie‘s hot Oscars contender “Unbroken.” He has had featured roles in two other films this year and stars in “71,” an intense war drama that debuts on Sept. 27 at the New York Film Festival. This early exposure can’t hurt when hits the Oscar campaign trail later this year.

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In “’71,” he plays Gary Hook, a young British soldier stationed in Belfast, Northern Ireland just weeks before the Bloody Sunday massacre on Jan. 30, 1972 ignited the Troubles. The film takes him from boot camp to moments of near-certain death, though the film is more of a showcase for rookie director Yann Demange.

O’Connell delivers an emotional performance despite the script giving us only limited detail about his character. He serves as the eyes through which we view the anger and corruption on both sides of the conflict. He is in the middle of intense scenes of action and unrest, like a standout early sequence where a confrontation between British soldiers and protesters leads to violence.

Roadside Attractions acquired the film last spring with plans for an early 2015 release, but it has made several important stops on the festival circuit this year, including Berlin, Telluride, and Toronto. And it has received positive notices along the way, averaging an impressive 88 score on MetaCritic based on its first four reviews. It opens in the UK in October, so it may at least be on the radar of some British academy members.

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O’Connell also earned acclaim in August for a very different performance, as a vicious juvenile inmate transferred to an adult prison in “Starred Up.” That was much more character-driven, and his mad-dog intensity earned raves from Peter Travers (Rolling Stone) who called it a “star-is-born performance” and Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter), who believed it will be “remembered as the film that announced a new star.”

He also had a role in the much less admired sequel “300: Rise of an Empire” back in March, but I suspect his contribution to that film will be mostly forgotten, or at the very least forgiven, if “Unbroken” turns out to be as good as its hype.

Putting together such a strong body of work in one year could lay the groundwork for his potential Oscar candidacy. Jessica Chastain had a similar ascent in 2011, starting the year as a virtual unknown and ending as a household name thanks to the release of a half dozen high-profile films, including “The Help,” which earned her an Oscar nomination. The good news for O’Connell is that, unlike Chastain, who had multiple viable projects in contention, it’s clear that “Unbroken” will be his Oscar vehicle.

Sometimes voters are quick to recognize standout newcomers; last year, Barkhad Abdi was nominated for his big-screen debut (“Captain Phillips“), and Lupita Nyong’o won for hers (“12 Years a Slave“). But in a Best Actor race already overcrowded with strong contenders, it can only help O’Connell that by the time “Unbroken” rolls out, he’ll already be a proven leading man.

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For now, O’Connell is a 100/1 longshot, ranking ninth in our experts’ odds, even though “Unbroken” ranks third for Best Picture. Can he make enough of an impression to move up? Use our drag-and-drop menu below to make or edit your predictions.

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