‘Black ’47’ Review
While filmmakers don’t tend to shy away from sad or even depressing characters or events, Ireland’s Great Famine has rarely been depicted on the big screen. Black ’47 refers to the worst year of the famine (1847). These were bleak times and folks were desperate – nearly without hope. More than one million people died, and between one million and two million emigrated from Ireland (depending on what time frame you examine). It all began with the potato blight.
Director Lance Daly co-wrote the script with PJ Dillon, Eugene O’Brien, and Pierce Ryan, and have chosen to explain history through a personal story, rather than an epic big picture one. Feeney (James Frecheville, Animal Kingdom, 2010) goes AWOL from the British Army in order to check on his family. The home he finds hardly resembles the one he left. His mother is dead from starvation and his brother was hanged by the British. The rest of his family has been evicted and is soon dead, as well. To complicate matters, he is not only viewed as a deserter by the British, but also a traitor within his own community (for fighting for the British).
Feeney becomes a renegade on a mission to avenge the deaths in his family. The film plays like one of those Charles Bronson movies, where a man of principle believes in doling out his own form of justice. A posse of four is assembled to track down Feeney. Captain Pope (Freddie Fox, The Three Musketeers, 2011) is a despicable soul and by-the-book soldier who blindly follows orders and ignores the suffering of citizens he views as barely human. Young Hobson (Barry Keoghan, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, 2017) is the Captain’s personal valet, while Conneely (Stephen Rea) is local added as a translator – and some much needed comic relief. The most interesting of the group is Hannah, a disgraced Inspector and Feeney’s former commanding officer.
Hugo Weaving (The Matrix) plays Hannah as a man driven to the edge by his war experience. One a hero, now slightly unstable in his actions, Hannah agrees to join the posse, instead of spending his life in prison. His commitment to the cause is always in question, as we are led to believe there is much to the connection of Hannah and Feeney…a connection that plays out dramatically when they finally cross paths again. Mr. Weaving’s great face is contrasted nicely by Mr. Frecheville’s dead eyes (‘like a doll’s eyes’).
The revenge mission plays out with some violence, but director Daly never stoops to gratuitous gore. Instead, we typically see the aftermath…one of which brings a twist to the phrase “pig-headed.” Feeney’s time as a soldier has well prepared him for this mission. Even Crocodile Dundee would be proud of Feeney’s knife, and he does tend to make a statement with each of his killings.
Supporting work is provided by Jim Broadbent, Moe Dunford (“Vikings”), and Sarah Greene (“Penny Dreadful”). There are a couple of themes on display here: the politics (and power grab) of the time, and one man’s drive to knock down corruption and clean up his beloved country…while showing no mercy to those who have harmed his family. The contempt for the British is quite clear. Religion doesn’t escape commentary and judgment, with a sequence involving a Protestant minister, a Roman Catholic priest and a soup line.
Director of Photographer Declan Quinn (Monsoon Wedding, In America, Leaving Las Vegas) does work capturing the contrast between beautiful vistas and incredible hardships. The stunning Connemara (western Australia) landscape is offset by immense suffering and cruelty…only the art design is a bit shaky, which is understandable given budgetary challenges. Though we’ve rarely, if ever, seen such a cinematic treatment of this era, it’s clear the guns misfired more often than not in this production.