An oddly untapped epoch in film, Ireland’s Great Famine is gifted the western treatment in Lance Daly’s Black ‘47. The title refers to 1847, the worst year of the tragedy, in which a million died and a million more emigrated, whilst the film unveils its horrors through the eyes of a renegade ranger. Perhaps at the expense of a more nuanced sociopolitical drama, this is an entertainingly brazen Revenant meets The Road tale of revenge.
Best known for his role in David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom, Australian actor James Frecheville stars here as desertee Irish ranger Feeney. After a prologue to introduce Hugo Weaving, whose Inspector Hannah served alongside Feeney in Afghanistan and will later be blackmailed into tracking him down, Daly’s camera follows the Irishman on horseback into a baron Connemara. Echoes of Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales are potent as Freeney passes through a mire of death and learns of the tragic fates that befell his family in his absence. His mother died of fever, having refused to accept the soup of Protestants, and brother was hung by the callous English enforcers of a partisan law.
It is when Freeney witnesses a tyrannical bailiff rip the last of his family from the house in which they are squatting, and has his nephew shot to boot, that he truly snaps. Drawing up a hasty hit list, he trudges from snob to traitor with increasingly uncomfortable creativity and passion for butchery; a pig’s head is employed with particular inventiveness for his vengeance on a rent collector. Keen to nip his vainglory in the bud, the British send in Hannah as bounty hunter, dressed head to toe like Hugh Jackman’s Van Helsing. Based on an Irish-language short film, by P.J. Dillon and Pierce Ryan, a cat and mouse structure ensues. It is a pleasing touch that sees Black ‘47 utilise Gaelic dialogue and set it symbolically against English.
Daly’s use of western genre traits in the film allows for the implementation of smart parallels. Themes of revenge, rugged landscapes and masculine individualism were part and parcel in the days of John’s Ford and Wayne and present the struggle here as one that is both complex and political. There’s a mythologising essence too, framed somewhere between Braveheart and a grubbier Knights of the Round Table, both of which were also shot largely in Ireland.
Desaturated within an inch of its life by cinematographer Declan Quinn, the film’s bleak environment casts an aura of death over proceedings, heightened by the presence of a skeletal peasantry and Daly’s eye for stark imagery. A low mist hangs over the Irish wasteland, which could very well be a medieval setting as it is captured here – certainly, the costumes recall darker ages. Above all, Brian Byrne’s pipe and string led score fuses Celtic rhythms with a drawn, almost horror-tinged, tension. It’s grim, unrelenting and a little overdone but impressively mounted and filmed with respect for the sublime.
A fine line is trod, with regard to the film’s higher profile cast members, between sparsity and wastage. Frecheville is terrific in capturing the broiling restraint of a man loaded with fury, grief and guilt but, as his narratival counterpart, Weaving is unrewarded for his efforts by a role that veers towards the asinine. Late in the film, Jim Broadbent turns up as Lord Kilmichael – a bumptious fictional amalgamation of the landlords who watched on as their tenants suffered – yet is underused with no meat to work with. Barry Keoghan, likewise, is a wasted talent as a briefly present dogsbody with a confusing accent.
What these characters lack is motivation and so present as underwritten and a little flat. Why, for instance, does Freddie Fox’s pompous Captain Pope act with such bile? In one scene, his heinous character declares that: ‘Drunkenness and flecklessness are the economics of the famine in the west.’ Foppish bleach-blonde hair doesn’t cut it as a drive for villainy.
This is less intellectual recreation of history than restoration of justice but it holds up well.
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