Sarah Cullen saddles up for Lance Daly’s drama set in Ireland during the Great Famine.
Sometimes it pays to go into movies blind. Well, or as blind as you can to a film which you know is going to be about that big important event that has shaped your country’s history for the last hundred and fifty years. I’ll admit it, friends: I was expecting something appropriately Lenten. Something dreary, something slow-moving and self-important. Something, in other words, that was good for me. But good for me in that Catholic way. You know. Boring.
Boy, was I ever happy to be wrong. Not only is Lance Daly’s newest feature a rollicking western with fantastic action and excellent performances, it also demonstrates how a film’s subject matter can add much-needed pathos and nuance to a genre. Colour me impressed.
Black 47 follows Feeney (James Frecheville), an Irish ranger who has returned home to Connemara after fleeing his post in the British army. Upon arrival, he discovers that his family has been evicted and his mother and brother have died in the famine. Seeking out answers (and a spot of revenge), he takes it upon himself to find those responsible for his family’s destruction. Meanwhile, word of Feeney’s desertion has reached the British battalion in Dublin and Feeney’s former comrade, Hannah (Hugo Weaving), is recruited to hunt him down.
Of course, that is not to say the Ireland depicted here isn’t bleak in the extreme, which is just as it should be. With a fantastically evocative soundtrack and populated by skeletal extras, the Conemara depicted is one straight out of the collective Irish memory. The harsh landscapes of empty and dilapidated cottages doesn’t feel that distant, however. One cannot look at them without being reminded of the growing number of homeless families up and down the country. Indeed, Black 47 focuses much of its ire on the local landlords who exploited the poor classes for personal gain. With recent news surfacing of Dublin landlords employing heavies to break down doors to illegally evict tenants, such scenes have an added urgency to them.
Black 47 should also be praised for its fantastic stunt choreography. While many of the fight scenes take place in close quarters which best enables Feeney to square up against multiple adversaries (and also demonstrates his strategic cunning), larger shoot-outs demonstrate impressive directorial ability. Taking place in the courtyards of lavish Irish manors, such scenes bring another element to a novel take on the western.
While in its basic construction, Black 47 is not much different from other recent revenge films in the Taken franchise and its numerous imitations, its pathos comes from its wider examination of society. Black 47 recognises that Feeney’s operation cannot right all wrongs, nor that all the wrong-doing can be scapegoated to a single individual, or even a single group. Feeney’s mother dies not at the hands of one person, but because she chose not to “take the soup.” Her death is the fault of not only British but also of numerous Irish collaborators who chose to act on their own selfish impulses. Feeney can attempt to re-enact revenge on individuals, but he is powerless to affect larger social or political changes.
The drama is supported by an impressive cast: Frecheville’s Feeney is stoic but never uncaring. His carefully controlled rage is released when the situation calls for it, and Frecheville ensures that Feeney is an eternal presence. Hugo Weaving comes across anachronistically, but rather appropriately, as an Aussie who’s sick of being a subject of the Crown. Freddie Fox is eminently punchable as the British emissary who views the famine as a result of Irish laziness.
If the film has one failing it’s in its portrayal (or indeed, lack thereof) of Irish women. While Sarah Greene holds her own as Feeney’s resilient sister, Ellie, there are very few other women to speak of. Two of the film’s main male characters also use the metaphors of comely British maidens versus bedraggled Irish ones to compare the state of the two countries. One wonders whether an otherwise resourceful film needed to resort to such clichéd stereotypes.
Interestingly, while opening the film, Daly noted that at the film’s Berlin premier, several English critics appeared less than happy with the British portrayal in Black 47. An unwillingness to acknowledge Britain’s not-too-distant colonialism aside, such a response is somewhat surprising: without giving too much away, the film’s conclusion extends an invitation to redemption for one of its main English representatives. The choice may not be easy or simple, but then what about Brexit – uh, I mean history – is?
Black 47 screened on Wednesday, 21st February 2018 as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival (21 February – 4th March).