Based on the Irish-language short film ‘An Ranger’ written and directed by PJ Dillon and Pierce Ryan, the title of Lance Daly’s new film ‘Black ‘47’ is taken from the most devastating year of Ireland’s Great Famine, 1847.
With the most severely affected areas in the west and south of Ireland, where the Irish language was primarily spoken, the period was contemporaneously known in Irish as An Drochshaol, loosely translated as the “hard times” (or literally, “The Bad Life”). During the famine, about one million people died, and a million more emigrated from Ireland. The already strained relations between the Irish and the British Crown soured further during and after the famine, heightening ethnic and sectarian tensions, and boosting Irish nationalism and republicanism in Ireland and among Irish emigrants in the United States and elsewhere.
Martin Feeney (James Frecheville, ‘Animal Kingdom’) is a former Connaught Ranger who is returning to Connemara, in the west of Ireland, in 1847. On his arrival home, the country is experiencing the worst year of the Great Famine. In this nearly post-apocalyptic landscape, Feeney finds his home turned into a pigpen, his mother has died of starvation, and his brother has been hanged after knifing a bailiff during his family's eviction. Feeney stays with his brother's widow (Sarah Greene, ‘Dublin Oldschool’) who is squatting in one of the few houses still standing with her three children, and he makes plans to emigrate to America and take his brother's family with him. Before they can leave, agents of the local Anglo-Irish landlord and members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) arrive to remove them from the squat. During the eviction the house is destroyed, Feeney is knocked out, and his nephew is shot dead. Feeney is brought in for interrogation by the RIC but uses his military skills to slaughter his captors and burn down their barracks. He returns to the squat to find further tragedy in its ruins, and commits himself to a path of vengeance.
Pope (Freddie Fox, ‘King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword’), an arrogant British officer, is assigned to apprehend him with the aid of Hannah (Hugo Weaving, ‘Mortal Engines’), an investigator for the RIC who served with Feeney in Afghanistan. Facing a death sentence for strangling a prisoner at the beginning of the film, Hannah is compelled to assist in the hunt. They are joined by Hobson (Barry Keoghan, ‘American Animals’), an idealistic young English private, and later hire Conneely (Stephen Rea, ‘Greta’), a knowledgeable local, to act as a translator from the Irish language.
There’s something about a vengeance Western that generally never fails to grip the emotions and the clean, cinematic lines of the genre lend themselves to cross-cultural hybridisation with often intriguing results. Initially it seems like ‘Black ‘47’ does a great deal right: there is a brooding atmosphere of suspicion and menace, moodily chiaroscuro photography from cinematographer Declan Quinn that makes the most of the desolate, wintry landscape, characterful casting of cragged, grimy faces pitted with the scars of a long, hard outdoor life, and eyes that suggest untold depths of violence and/or sacrifice. The Hollywood Western ancestry of ‘Black ‘47’ is nakedly evident, borrowing across the spectrum from ‘High Noon’ to ‘Unforgiven’, not to mention strong overtones of ‘High Plains Drifter’, that cultish early entry in Clint Eastwood's directing canon.
In an interview, Daly highlighted that no film on the Great Famine had been made for the big screen previously, despite its significance to Irish history, stating, "Given the singular importance of the Great Famine in Irish history, and that it has never been seen on our cinema screens before, our cast and crew felt a huge responsibility to make a film that was not only historically accurate and emotionally true."
It is genuinely fascinating to see ‘Black ‘47’ weave a story around the grim historical details, from the mass evictions of starving labourers by callous landowners to the ongoing export of grain while locals starved.
It is genuinely fascinating to see ‘Black ‘47’ weave a story around the grim historical details, from the mass evictions of starving labourers by callous landowners to the ongoing export of grain while locals starved. Daly accompanies this with beautiful shots of the countryside in Wicklow, Kildare, and Connemara, as well as some eye-catching images – a mother and child frozen together, Feeney’s eyes glowing like chips of ice, a skull in a puddle. The film makes the hardship tangible in a striking cold, bleached-out look. For an era where firearms had to be muzzle-loaded, the action scenes are surprisingly propulsive, with Feeney slicing through soldiers using his recurved kukri knife, sniping from rooftops, and going John Woo with twin muskets.
Striking visuals aside, Daly reveals the country’s tragedy in lengthy dialogue scenes. Reminiscent of Andreas Prochaska’s use of archaic German in his schnitzel Western ‘The Dark Valley’, the film makes extensive use of Gaelic dialogue (accompanied by subtitles). It’s a nice stylistic touch, but the actual results vary. The film unapologetically deals in some familiar archetypes, recycling rather than reinventing the Western rulebook. Like Jennifer Kent’s colonial revenge story ‘The Nightingale’, the villainous characters lack nuance - the Brits are all one-note of greed, cowardice and brutality. Barry Keoghan and Stephen Rea’s side characters are underwritten. Hugo Weaving’s Hannah represents the turmoil of authority that is no longer needed – his humanity is slipping away the longer that he stays in a country that despises his presence, under a leadership structure that looks down its nose at his working-class roots. He’s an angry and not particularly sympathetic character.
The biggest impressions are made by Freddie Fox, who taps into the brand of deadly British fop that Tim Roth essayed so excellently in ‘Rob Roy’, and Australian actor James Frecheville. A grim spectre with a gaunt face and unreadable eyes floating above a thick beard, Frecheville is imposing and unrecognizable as Feeney. It’s an impressively transformative performance, particularly when you consider that he delivers so many of his lines in Gaelic, a language he learned for the part.
An exploration of a gruelling period in Irish history, ‘Black ‘47’ toys with notions of ethics in an amoral world, questioning the very existence of redemption and showing the guy on the white horse as a reluctant, mournful participant in a (possibly) never-ending cycle of violence.