Black ’47: Grim moorland revenge thriller drags the Famine out of the shadows

Set in the far west of Ireland during the Great Famine’s most severe year, 1847. Army deserter Feeney (James Frecheville) returns to his village to find starvation and British oppression has wiped out his family and home. Embarking on a bloody rampage across heath and homes across the province, British soldiers are dispatched to bring him down.

The Great Famine was one of the most awful events in European history, devastating an already destitute nation by killing over a million people and forcing another million to emigrate. It’s unthinkable this historical touchstone has never been covered onscreen properly before. Black ’47 delivers the first, and hopefully not last, feature that sells the horror without pandering for pity. The film wisely sidesteps pure historical drama, focusing on the core narrative of an Irish Ranger (James Frecheville, delivering dead eyes and the Connacht accent to a tee) deserting a distant British military campaign to return to his home in the Connemara. He hasn’t witnessed the horrific effects of the Famine first hand – but nor has he truly seen the power of British oppression and human greed like this.

Black ’47 covers a lot of the themes you’d expect, including colonialism, class structures, and the horrors of starvation. Director Lance Daly handles these in reasonably broad strokes. The British characters and their accomplices are one-track evil, happy to step over any number of dead bodies to achieve their aims. Jim Broadbent, playing the curmudgeonly Lord Kilmichael, excels in his thin role of snooty and sinister British gentry. This would have worked against the film in a pure historical drama – but blending elements of a pulpy revenge thriller into the narrative made this choice sensible. Class is also an important theme in the film, particularly tied to the differences between the Irish allied with the British and the suffering peasants outside the gates. Expressed in dress, religion, and other symbols throughout, Daly does a good job in accurately building out the world of a divided 19th century Ireland.

Daly’s other success come from his cinematography. The Irish fells and boggy roads are captured in perma-bleakness, a match for the imposing landscapes of the great westerns. The grim reality of famine is painfully bared through panning shots of skeletal bodies and hungry eyes, constantly grounding us in a reality grimmer than even a savage revenge story. He also delivers chilling set piece images – a skull lodged in the road’s mud, a pig’s head used for revenge, bodies frozen in failed defence against the cold. This further builds out the black world around Black ’47. Daly’s hard work is undone, however, by some washed out panoramas and cheap background effects. If it doesn’t look good, why use it? These moments, though sporadic, bring you crashing back to reality quickly.

Some other hit and miss factors include the script and narrative pacing. There seems to be real confusion as to who the central protagonist is – Feeney is a character we clearly sympathise with, but Hugo Weaving’s Inspector Hannah (non-descript) seems to have a more approachable emotional arc. But even there the sense of internal drive for him, beyond acting as a plot device, feels tenuous. Additionally, the film flip flops a little unevenly between high-paced action and grinding dialogue. Perhaps it’s a script that focuses heavily on developing key themes while selling the revenge genre, but the characters tended to get a little lost in the surrounds. The talent in the cast (the mercurial Barry Keoghan was nearly anonymous in his role as a British soldier) meant the average performances looked worse than they were. More was needed to really make Black ’47 shine – with the notable exception of Stephen Rea. His role as gombeen hustler Conneely was playful and cutting, and brought an authentic Irishness to proceedings.

Broaching (bog) land never tread before, Black ’47 sells both the political period piece and bloody revenge thriller. Small tweaks would have taken this from good to excellent. 7/10.

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