Director: Lance Daly Starring: Hugo Weaving, James Frecheville, Stephen Rea, Freddy Fox, Barry Keoghan, Moe Dunford, Jim Broadbent Running Time: 96 minutes
For an event that had such a profound impact on the course of Irish history, the great tragedy and injustice from which Ireland’s entire subsequent history as a nation sprang forth from, it’s surprising that the Famine hasn’t found its story told on cinema screens, particularly Irish ones, more often. Director Lance Daly takes that task on in Black 47, last week’s Opening Gala of the 2018 Dublin International Film Festival. His approach is perhaps unexpected considering the subject matter, the film being a roaring rampage of revenge, internalising the anger and injustice of the Famine into one man’s quest for vengeance. Prestigous? No. But undoubtedly compelling.
The film tells the story of Feeny, an Irish Ranger who has returned to the west fresh after deserting the British Army, with hopes of emigrating with his family to America. The reality of the Famine, depicted starkly in the gaunt faces of the actors and the Game of Thrones‘ filters of mud grey and ice blue, is that Feeny has nothing to go back to, his family home now a dilapidated pig sty; what remains of his family barely clinging to life. Before long, the apathetic and cruel local authorities make a grave error, ensuring that Feeny, already a man with a grudge against the English and considerable skill in killing them, is left on the run with nothing left to lose. Suddenly, the film’s genre snaps into focus, and affects a snappier pace and pulpier direction along with it. This isn’t a drama, it’s a grindhouse revenge flick that happens to take place during the Famine.
Feeny works his way up the food chain, so to speak, of those responsible. They’ve all wronged him personally, but each is also a stand-in for perps of the genocide in large: judges, landlords, etc. With a killer on the loose, a former soldier with a link to Feeny is dispatched along with a member of the establishment to bring the brute in: Hannah, a bitter, past-his-best Brit played by Hugo Weaving. It’s easy and not inaccurate to compare Black 47 with westerns, all men on horses stoically seeking justice, but this a unique example of Gaelsploitation, there’s more Sweet Sweetback or Machete to Feeny that John Wayne. Thanks to the long-fingered clutch of colonialism, the film literally manages to give its protagonist the backstory of being a war vet who served in Afghanistan, like an Irish Punisher, and that’s far from the only action trope on display in this unlikely skin. The character is an unstoppable force, the kind that spends every standing moment stabbing, the kind that only sits down to surprise upcoming victims in the dark, dramatically revealing that he was There All Along. There’s a unique thrill hearing arch tough guy quips being delivered as Gaeilge, and not to be unkind to Australian actor James Frecheville, often speaking an unfamiliar language and doing good accent work as the film’s lead, but he does here fit the grindhouse tradition of blank-eyed, musclebound leads; creatively violent but lacking in charisma, while Weaving, rising Irish stars like Moe Dunford and Barry Keoghan, and character actor ringers like Stephen Rea and Jim Broadbent shape out or shade in their stock characters.
It’s a film from a decidedly macho point of view. Not only for the lack of women in prominent roles in the cast, but for its emotionally closed, stunted, in some ways impotent approach to violence. There is a futility, ultimately, to Feeny killing individual men for the Famine, Irish will after all keep marching to death down famine roads regardless. But this is not a story that gets told often, and never like this. Daly directs the knife fights and shoot outs brutally and capably, and it must be emphasised that it’s not an insult to compare Black 47 to exploitation films. Feeny isn’t a character to aspire towards, he’s one to live vicariously through, an embodiment of the marginalised fighting back against his oppressors, a folk hero who just gives the soup to those on the verge of Taking It. He’s in no way a three-dimensional character, but his actions and motivations serve as food for thought for Weaving, and it’s Hugo’s character who has the more compelling arc, the uncertain Good Cop discovering where the greater violence lays as he hunts his charge through a devastated countryside. It would be a film out of time if outside events, British dismissal to Irish concerns, weren’t keeping it timely. A brutal revenge thriller, Black 47 tackles the Famine full force, and it will inspire thoughtful debates and blood-lusting cheers in equal measure.(3.5 / 5)