D: Lance Daly / 100m
Cast: Hugo Weaving, James Frecheville, Stephen Rea, Freddie Fox, Barry Keoghan, Moe Dunford, Sarah Greene, Jim Broadbent, Dermot Crowley, Aidan McArdle
In 1847, Martin Feeney (Frecheville), an Irish ranger who has served in the English army, returns home to Connemara only to discover that his mother has died of starvation and his brother has been hanged for stabbing a bailiff while being evicted. Staying with his brother’s family, their own eviction from the property they’re squatting in, leads to the death of Martin’s nephew, and his arrest by the constabulary. Escaping from the barracks where he was being held, and burning it down in the process, Martin is targeted by the British authorities, and an up-and-coming lieutenant called Pope (Fox) is assigned to find and kill him. He’s aided by a veteran of the British Army called Hannah (Weaving), and a young English private called Hobson (Keoghan). While they attempt to track him down, Feeney goes on a revenge spree, beginning with the man who took advantage of his mother’s plight by purchasing her home after her eviction, to the judge (Crowley) who sentenced his brother to hang, and all the way to the biggest landlord in the area, Lord Kilmichael (Broadbent). And it’s not long before the paths of everyone involved come together…
Expanded from the short, An Ranger (2008), which was written and directed by P.J. Dillon (here one of four co-writers), Black ’47 explores a period in Irish history that hasn’t really been seen on the big screen before. The title refers to the worst year of a famine that lasted from 1845 to 1849, when as many as a million people died from starvation and disease brought about by a potato blight. Here the use of the Great Famine as the backdrop to a tale of violent, unmerciful revenge helps the narrative greatly, giving it an immediacy and power – and depth – that allows the movie to become more than just another exercise in morally doubtful vigilantism. The nature and the widespread effects of the famine can be seen in scene after scene, with communities decimated and starving families congregating in fields or at the side of the road because they no longer have homes, and work is unavailable. Feeney is an avenging angel, targeting the corrupt Irish officials who have opted to collude with the British, and the British authorities, whose arrogance and greed has led them to view the famine as an opportunity to make themselves richer by removing the labourers and farmers they never wanted on their lands in the first place.
By allowing the backdrop to become a big part of the movie’s foreground, director Lance Daly ensures that what’s at stake on a national level isn’t entirely forgotten, even if it’s not the movie’s primary focus. Feeney may be an Irishman with “a very particular set of skills” for the time, and he may be taciturn out of expediency, but he’s also someone who accepts that he can’t change anything; he’s just doing what he can. Frecheville is an imposing figure, his eyes glowering with suppressed rage, and he makes Feeney as much a victim as an avenger. Weaving adds a sense of melancholy to his role, making Hannah the most conflicted character of all thanks to a connection with Feeney that complicates things when they matter most. However, these characters, and Rea’s world-weary translator, are the only ones that have any meat on them (excuse the pun), and as a result, the script struggles to make their actions and motives entirely credible (Hobson has a mad moment of naïve idealism that is jarring thanks to its unlikely occurrence). Sometimes the politics is a little pedantic as well, but when it comes to Feeney exacting his revenge, the movie is on much firmer ground, and Daly provides viewers with a number of exciting, well staged – and brutal – action sequences. It’s not an entirely successful movie, but it is gripping, and for anyone who has seen An Ranger, yes, the pig is back.
Rating: 7/10 – though a markedly genre exercise (a Western) set against a grim historical backdrop, Black ’47 uses said backdrop as a way of adding depth and intensity to its otherwise generic main storyline; with starkly beautiful imagery thanks to DoP Declan Quinn (and this despite some very dodgy matte work), and equally impressive production design courtesy of Waldemar Kalinowski, this is a movie that tells its simple story in ways that help elevate the material, and make it a far more emotional experience than expected.