In Black ’47 a Connaught Ranger abandons his post and returns to Ireland in 1847 only to find his homeland ravaged by famine and his countrymen downtrodden by an uncaring regime.
He endeavours to mete out justice to those who wronged him and his kin. This thirst for vengeance provides a quintessential set-up and plenty of drop-down-drag-out pay-off.
There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding Black ’47 since it screened at the Dublin International Film Festival back in February. I’ve seen nothing but positive impressions of the film for months now.
For me, this can have a detrimental effect on my enjoyment of a film. The weight of expectation that’s created by a constant stream of acclaim for a picture that I’ve not seen makes me wary.
Reviews out of festivals tend towards over-excitement: the festival circuit is where a good film can be a great film and a great film can give your life new meaning. And that’s doubly true for homegrown film.
However, I can say wholeheartedly, and with some embarrassment, that I wasted my time fretting over whether Black ’47 is all it was made out to be. It’s a special kind of picture for many reasons.
First of all, there’s a novelty to this movie: Irish action movies are a rarity, and when they do come along they’re not period pieces.
Indeed, when I think about noteworthy Irish action movies, the only examples that come to mind are so-bad-they’re-good cult classics: Taffin and Fatal Deviation.
A quick Google search suggests that I’ve just named two of a possible seven homegrown action movies. Based on Google’s list, Black ’47 is handily the best Irish action picture to date.
Quick and Brutal
Black ’47’s historical setting allows for a lot of creativity when it comes to action sequences. The weapons of the day require reloading after every shot, and so every shot counts.
This isn’t the free-flowing bullet ballet of Hong Kong’s “heroic bloodshed” movies. Instead, the fights are played out in a punchy staccato.
There’s always an element of panic about the encounters, particularly when the Connaught Ranger at the centre of the film, Feeney (James Frecheville), pulls an Indian combat knife on an unsuspecting soldier or policemen.
Director Lance Daly (Life’s a Breeze) frames the action scenes to emphasise that Feeny is a force of nature in the narrative, an avenging spirit that the authorities aren’t prepared for.
There’s a messiness about the fights that cuts against the slickness typically seen in popular action films. Feeney’s brand of vengeance is often quick and brutal.
For Feeney’s quarry, the punishment fits the crime in poetic ways: a debt collector’s head is replaced with that of his precious pig; and a judge is hanged out of the courthouse window after a mock trial where he’s not allowed to speak English.
While Feeney is on his quest for revenge, he’s also being hunted.
A disgraced police inspector, Hannah (Hugo Weaving) has a chance to avoid execution if he brings Feeney in. The rub is that Hannah and Feeney are former comrades-in-arms.
One of my favourite action-movie tropes is a character reading off the CV of the film’s protagonist. In this case, Hannah is able to speak to the dangers of hunting Feeney, but his superiors aren’t having it.
Facing the hangman’s noose, “Hunter” Hannah has no choice but to head out West and hunt his former tutee.
Hannah is accompanied on his mission by Pope (Freddie Fox), a pompous and callous soldier, and Hobson (Barry Keoghan), a naive recruit who acts as orderly to Pope.
Pope is a waxed moustache away from being a silent movie villain. He quotes the Bible when it supports his feelings on the Irish and the Famine, but has no Christian compassion for the people he encounters.
Hobson is an innocent in a world of horrors. And Stephen Rea’s character Conneely, a local guide and Irish speaker, helps sway his feelings as their journey continues.
Hannah is stuck somewhere between self-preservation and a sense of martial brotherhood. He seems to want to bring in Feeney, but arouses suspicion in Pope again and again.
Weaving’s Hannah is gruffer than gruff and tougher than tough. It’s a commanding performance that shows glimpses of just enough humanity to prevent the disgraced policeman from coming off as a cartoon character.
Hannah is, in many ways, the typical hero of the classic Hollywood Western – only viewed through a lens that emphasises his flaws over his virtues.
In fact, Black ’47 has been called a Western, which I find intriguing. Most of the Westerns that see cinema releases today are what were once thought of as “anti-Westerns” or “revisionist Westerns”.
The popular cinematic representation of the Wild West as a savage but fun land of endless possibilities ripe for taking (and taming) gave way to a view of the West as a territory built on blood and corpses where law and lawlessness were one in the same.
Black ’47 is a variation on the “anti-Western” that brings unrepresented aspects of the classical Hollywood Western to the forefront.
Much of Black ’47’s dialogue is in Irish.
There was a moment at the start of the film where Stephen Rea’s narration transitioned from Irish to English that had me thinking “That’s a shame … ,” only to be pleasantly surprised when characters began speaking in Irish with subtitles.
This presentation really distinguishes Black ‘47 among recent Irish productions and helps to foreground the gulf of experiences between the haves and have-nots at the apex of the Famine. For the lawmakers and enforcers of the time, the common person’s lack of English was a shortcut to persecution.
Some ways into the film, estate owner Lord Kilmichael (Jim Broadbent), remarks to Hannah and Pope that “soon a Celt will be as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan”.
He’s quick to point out that this isn’t necessarily his own sentiment, but Broadbent plays Kilmichael as a bad liar, and Weaving does some superb furrowed-brow acting to show his incredulity.
Characters like Kilmichael, or Moe Dunford’s Fitzgibbon aren’t actively evil, but their passiveness and wilful ignorance is tantamount to the worst malevolence.
Imagery throughout the picture contrasts Kilmichael’s stately home and granary with the rest of the locality. Colours are washed-out to the extent that the landscape looks otherworldly.
In Black ’47 we see a stagnant Ireland as inhospitable as Monument Valley, a land that’s robbed of life.
The narrative culminates in a prolonged action sequence where Hannah’s loyalty is tested.
Here, the rudimentary nature of the firearms makes a spectacle out of every bullet. A standout tracking shot of Hannah dispatching soldiers in an enclosed hallway proves the best in moment in a film that has great moments to spare.
Black ’47 is as crowd-pleasing an action film as you’re likely to see. Lance Daly directs some outstanding action without sacrificing a sense of purpose. Humanity and havoc go hand in hand and form something special. More please.