Black '47

Me for vendetta: Hugo Weaving and James Frecheville in Black '47
8/10 - Lance Daly's revenge movie may lack subtlety, but it gets to the heart of the shameful story of the Irish potato famine.
Release Date: 
Friday, September 28, 2018
Written by: 

James Frecheville and Hugo Weaving star in a revenge thriller set during the Irish potato famine.


Considering the Irish potato famine's incredible importance to world events, from the Celtic diaspora of the 19th Century that helped make America, to the festering hatreds that scarred Northern Ireland in the 20th, it is strange it has largely been ignored by cinema.

Perhaps many have judged it too difficult and harrowing - but director Lance Daly has thrown himself fully into the subject with his new revenge thriller Black '47.

The film begins in 1847, the worst year of the famine, with the return home to Connemara of Martin Feeney (brooding Australian actor James Frecheville), who has absconded from the British Army.

The hardship has killed his mother, and his brother has been hung by the British authorities for stabbing a bailiff who evicted them from their home.

His brother's widow Ellie (Sarah Greene) and her three children squat in one of the few houses left standing by landowners keen to drive out tenants to escape taxes - but are in turn turfed out into the cold by the local land agents.

Arrested protecting his sister-in-law, Feeney escapes by killing several constables and burning down the courthouse, but when he returns to his family's village, he finds his sister-in-law and her children have frozen to death. Abandoning a plan to emigrate to America, he vows revenge.

The British authorities engage Hannah (Hugo Weaving), a retired war hero who has disgraced himself as a police constable by murdering a suspect in a drunken rage, to find and kill the aggrieved Irishman and earn a reprieve.

Hannah, who knows Feeney after serving with him in Afghanistan, is joined by Pope (Freddie Fox), an arrogant young army officer to hunt down the aggrieved Irishman - who is now rampaging through the countryside seeking out anyone who has wronged either him, or his countrymen - including his ultimate target, the cruel local landowner Lord Kilmichael (Jim Broadbent).

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Black '47's subject matter is a bleak one, and it's reflected by the film's look - as Daly and his cinematographer Declan Quinn shoot Ireland's green hills in washed out tones that reflect the draining of colour from the faces of the starving.

However, the director addresses the story in the style of a revenge-filled Western like The Outlaw Josey Wales, an approach that provides the film with momentum and, at times, a black humour best exemplified by the character of Coneely (Stephen Rea) - a worldly-wise local who joins Pope and Hannah as a translator and dishes out wisdom and barbs between lilting folk songs.

Some have compared the film to Braveheart, as the plot features a Celtic hero putting cartoonish English villains to the sword (or in this case, an Indian combat knife), but the comparison is an unfair one.

Although Daly's film often lacks subtlety - Lord Kilmichael repeats a line, found in James Joyce's Ulysses that some landowners want the Catholic Irish to be as rare as native Americans in Manhattan - it is dastardliness with a purpose.

Whereas Mel Gibson slaughtered history in the service of Hollywood spectacle, the bluntness of the script that Daly and his co-writers have come up with captures an essence of truth - the actions of the British government and the Anglo-Irish aristocrats really were unforgivable and have left scars more than a century and a half later.

Scenes in which hungry locals desperately attempt to obtain grain bound for England from uncaring agents of the crown depict something that really did happen - shamefully Ireland's landowners continued to export food while its people starved.

The performances from a strong cast are powerful, even when merely brooding or twirling their impressive facial hair, and the Irish characters' use of their native tongue adds an additional layer to a film that otherwise follows the revenge thriller template.

As a result, while Black '47 isn't always a sensitive depiction of one of history's most harrowing episodes - it is a worthy, and even entertaining one.

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