Bloody revenge saga is more folk ballad than history lesson
Black '47 (2018)
Directed by Lance Daly
Cast: James Frecheville, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Jim Broadbent
For a man with plenty of Irish in his family tree, I’m shamefully short on my understanding of modern Irish history. Some of this can be traced to the fact that much of it deals with sectarian squabbles between Catholics and Protestants—neither of whom I have any particular loyalty to. But a lot of it is down to pure American laziness about our ethnic heritage. We’re far more likely to go to a parade and shout vague slogans of pride than we are to crack a history book and actually learn something about our ancestors. And so I greet the Irish historical drama Black ’47 with a certain predisposed appreciation. Though it dresses up its history lesson with action and violence, it elucidates an extremely crucial period in Ireland’s past.
The film, from little-known Irish director Lance Daly (Last Days in Dublin, The Halo Effect, The Good Doctor, Life’s a Breeze), takes us back to the days of the Great Hunger, known around the world as the Irish Potato Famine. The year is 1847. A soldier by the name of Feeney (James Frecheville from The Drop and Animal Kingdom) wearily makes his way home to rural Ireland. He’s been serving as a ranger in the British army. It’s a choice a lot of Irishmen made at the time out of sheer desperation. Ireland was being decimated by a blight that killed off its vulnerable potato crop (all the other crops, meanwhile, were exported to absentee landlords in England). Serving in the army of the occupying English forces ensured some form of financial stability but marked many Irishmen as traitors in the eyes of their fellow countrymen. Feeney, a deserter to the Queen’s army, returns to his village to find the squalor and deprivation he fled has only intensified in his absence. His mother has passed away from fever, and his brother has been lynched for stabbing a debt collector who came to knock down the family hovel. Believe it or not, things only get worse from there for our man Feeney. With nothing left to lose, he loads his musket and mounts a one-man campaign of revenge against the people who destroyed his kith and kin.
Worried about the bad publicity of an Irish soldier killing off British citizens, authorities draft an officious officer named Pope (Freddie Fox, The Three Musketeers) and a disgraced soldier named Hannah (Hugo Weaving from The Matrix) to hunt him down. Following his tour in the military, Hannah got a job as an inspector rooting out rebel sympathizers; but he was thrown in jail for accidentally murdering a suspect he was supposed to be questioning. He’s given a reprieve because he served alongside Feeney during the war in Afghanistan. (Yup, that little dustup has been going on for a while.) It’s believed that Hannah can provide some extra insight necessary to capturing Feeney.
Along the way the two Englishmen recruit a wide-eyed private (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk) and a canny Gaelic translator (Stephen Rea, The Crying Game). As they ride through the Irish countryside, following in the bloody wake of Feeney, they are increasingly exposed to the atrocities that the British government is committing on the Irish people. Which will falter first: The Englishmen’s sense of duty or the Irishman’s bloodlust?
With this rawboned tale of old school, biblical-style vengeance, Daly is clearly conjuring up classic Irish folk ballads of war and murder and untimely death: God Save Ireland, The Lament For Owen Rowe, Jimmy Murphy, The Minstrel Boy, Whiskey in the Jar, Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye, McCafferty being just a few of the classics. With its near-silent antihero and bullet-riddled sense of justice, Black ’47 also finds more than a little precedent in the American Western genre. Its morals are rather clear-cut; the straightforward script rarely paints its hero as anything deeper than a righteously indignant figure of vengeance and its villains as anything other than sneering racists. But having such an expert cast gives the film a strong sense of veracity. Weaving’s drunken wreck of a man offers a slippery moral center to this tale, sliding between hatred and sympathy for his quarry. And when Jim Broadbent shows up late in the game as the film’s final boss, a cruel landlord named Lord Kilmichael, he lends chilling weight to lines like, “There are those who look forward to the day when a Celtic Irishman in Ireland is as rare as a red Indian in Manhattan.”
Black ’47 is dark in look as well as in tone. Exteriors are gray and cloud-covered. Interiors are sooty and candlelit. There are moments when the cinematography bends toward eye-straining. But it’s fittingly bleak and appropriately chilly.
While it’s hard to mistake this simple tale of oppression and rebellion as anything other than a macho morality play, it effectively and efficiently encapsulates the harrowing (often overlooked) time period of Ireland’s Great Famine. Looked on less as a rigorous historical account and more as a blood-soaked folk tale told around a flickering tavern fireplace, Black ’47 makes for one rousing cinematic yarn.