The Great Famine provides the backdrop for this harrowing and visually stunning tale of vengeance. Black 47 refers to 1847 – the worst year of the potato famine in Ireland, where millions of poor people died of starvation or were forced to emigrate. Out of this tragic period of history, director Lance Daly has crafted a brutal, righteously angry, and uncompromisingly violent genre thriller.
Taking the structure of a classic Western, Black 47 sees Martin Feeney (James Frecheville) return to Ireland, having been a soldier in the British army. Arriving home in Connemara in 1847, he discovers his mother is dead, and his brother has been hanged. Feeney plans to take his brother’s widow Ellie (Sarah Greene) and her children to America. But when they are forcibly evicted, Feeney is arrested by the constabulary, and helplessly watches as they kill his nephew.
In one of the films most thrilling scenes, evoking First Blood, Feeney escapes from jail. Using the skills he acquired fighting British wars in India and Afghanistan, Feeney goes on a bloody rampage with his razor sharp Gurkha’s Kukri knife. When he returns to find his sister-in-law, she and her remaining child are dead, having succumbed to exposure. Feeney vows to track down every man he deems responsible for the death of his family and make them pay with their lives.
Meanwhile, an old British soldier (Hugo Weaving) now working for the Irish Constabulary is pulled out of a prison cell – having murdered a suspect during a routine interrogation – and is offered a shot at redemption. Hunt and apprehend Feeney. Alongside him in this hunting posse are Pope (Freddie Fox) a young British officer, Private Hobson (Barry Keoghan), and Conneely (Stephen Rea) an opportunistic local man.
Shot over an Irish winter, on location in Wicklow, Kildare, and Connemara, the films visuals have a biting authenticity. Director Lance Daly drains the frame of colour, reflecting how the country of Ireland was drained of life. The image is so saturated it’s barely a tweak away from monochrome. Adding to the authenticity, much of the film is in Irish Gaelic. Daly also offers fascinating historical details, such as the Protestant bible societies offering soup to the starving, but only if they renounce Catholicism.
As I’m sure others have noted there’s more than a hint of Braveheart about Black 47, but without all the nonsense and crowd pleasing romanticism. In actuality, if you were to strip away the period setting, it has more in common with the post-Vietnam exploitation flicks, about furious soldiers returning home to a country very different to the one they left behind, and then going on murderous vigilante rampages.
The politics of Black 47 are clear-eyed. There is no ambiguity here, and nor should there be. The ruling classes and their thug enforcers are for the most part portrayed as pure bastards. Though this is not without a certain level of historical accuracy. Black 47 is a film pulsing with anger. In one scene Feeney is told to speak English, not that “aboriginal gibberish.” Feeney, eyes burning, blade held in front of his face spits back, “I will not speak it. Not ever.”
Australian actor James Frecheville is terrific as the stoic and vengeful Feeney. It is an intensely physical performance, hollowed out and haunted. As well as having to master an Irish accent, he also very impressively learned how to speak Gaelic for the film. There are excellent performances through the cast, including Jim Broadbent, and the ever-reliable Barry Keoghan. Freddie Fox as the arrogant young soldier Pope is unmistakably from the Fox acting dynasty. There’s a scene where he stares down the barrel of a rifle, and it could be The Jackal himself.
There are pacing issues. Even at a brisk 99 minutes there are some sections that drag. Overall however, this is a highly recommendable film. Black 47 features strong performances, beautiful visuals – including the use of matte backgrounds, which I absolutely love – great music, and tells an important story about a dark and often overlooked period in history.
The blu-ray disc comes with a ten-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, with interviews with the main cast. As well as that there are three pieces of traditional Irish folk music, and the theatrical trailer.
Cast: James Frecheville, Hugo Weaving, Freddie Fox, Sarah Greene, Barry Keoghan, Stephen Rea, Jim Broadbent Director: Lance Daly Writer: PJ Dillon, Pierce Ryan, Eugene O’Brien & Lance Daly Released By: Altitude Certificate: 15 Duration: 99 mins Release Date: 26th December 2018