Dir: Lance Daly; Starring: Hugo Weaving, James Frecheville, Stephen Rea, Freddie Fox, Barry Keoghan, Moe Dunford, Jim Broadbent, Sarah Greene. Cert 15, 100 mins
As a piece of social history, Black ’47 (set in the aftermath of the Irish famine of 1845) has its limitations. As an Irish revenge western in the vein of Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood, it is tremendous – a rousing, blood-spattered drama in which one Irishman holds the British colonialists to account for their wanton cruelty.
The film’s mythic force is underlined by its visual style. Lance Daly sets his story in an Ireland where the sun never shines. Colours are desaturated. Mountains are veiled in mist and the ground is always muddy underfoot. This is the land that Martin Feeney (James Frecheville) has come back to in 1847 after serving with the British army in Afghanistan. There is death and destruction wherever he looks. The potato crops have failed. Landlords have evicted their tenants whose roofless homes are now being used as pens for livestock. As he rides through the countryside, Feeney sees women and children in rags, shivering in the open air.
PJ Dillon and Pierce Ryan’s story, originally made as a short film called An Ranger, carries obvious echoes of Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales. Just as Eastwood’s farmer returns home at the start of that movie to discover his family has been massacred, Feeney learns of the devastation wrought on his kin. His brother has been hanged. His mother has starved to death. Old neighbours regard him with suspicion because he has served with the British, who are responsible for the suffering that can be seen everywhere.
If this was a Ken Loach film, the political struggle would have been foregrounded and far more attention paid to the economic reasons behind the famine. The filmmakers include various scenes in which the Irish are victimised because of their language and their religion. Many don’t speak English and so can’t understand the charges levelled against them in the courts. The British missionaries demand they renounce their Catholicism and offer them soup in return. Director Daly touches on the obscenity of landowners hoarding grain at a time when so many are dying of starvation. Such injustice, though, isn’t the main focus. Instead, the film concentrates on the lone avenger Feeney and his determination to mete out justice to his family’s tormentors.
“Best soldier I ever met,” British army officer veteran Hannah (Hugo Weaving) says of Feeney. They served in Afghanistan together and Feeney saved Hannah from an ambush outside Kabul.
Hannah is the equivalent of Pat Garrett in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the former friend and colleague of Feeney now compelled to hunt him down.
Both Hannah and Feeney are deeply affected by what they witnessed in Afghanistan. Life was cheap but it is even cheaper back in Ireland. “Is the prisoner being cooperative,” Hannah is asked early on about an Irish resistance fighter he is interrogating. “Not really, no,” Hannah replies distractedly as he chokes the man to death, seemingly without realising he is doing so. Feeney is equally sadistic towards those who persecuted his family. He is the hero of the film but that doesn’t take away from the discomfort audiences may feel at the ever more inventive ways he targets and fells his enemies.
As in Jennifer Kent’s recent film, Nightingale, the British colonialists and their sympathisers are portrayed in an almost entirely negative light. Freddie Fox’s martinet young officer Pope is at least dedicated to his task (bringing Feeney to justice) but is haughty and cruel. The one decent Brit on display is the young private Hobson (Barry Keoghan) who, unlike the officers around him, notices that there are people starving to death all around him.
Jim Broadbent’s performance as Anglo-Irish aristocrat, Lord Kilmichael, the top name on Feeney’s death list, rekindles memories of his equally flamboyant turn as psychopathic toff, the 23rd Earl of Leete, in Mike Leigh’s A Sense Of History. With his whiskers and sideburns, Kilmichael is an eccentric, stubborn and seemingly genial figure but one who has no sympathy whatsoever for those starving to death outside the gates of his country house. He resents his tenants, wants to clear them off the land anyway and welcomes the famine for either killing them off or forcing them to emigrate to the US.
In another nod to Peckinpah and Eastwood, the filmmakers include a jester, Conneely (Stephen Rea), who rides along with Hannah and Pope as they try to track Feeney down. He is there as their translator but he is also a witness and sardonic commentator – someone who can put the increasingly violent events into context. He looks on at events that are both mythic and squalid.
Black ’47 is a contradictory affair. Like the films it references, it offers escapist entertainment, even as it touches on the very grimmest of subject matter. In reducing the story of the Irish famine to a morality tale about a lone avenger fighting back against the evil British, it can risk seeming simplistic and one-dimensional. That doesn’t take away from Daly’s bravura storytelling or from performances by James Frecheville and Hugo Weaving that match the swagger and intensity of those of Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in the westerns that clearly inspired Black ’47 as much as any history books.
Black ’47 is in cinemas from 28 September
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