UK Release Date: 28th September 2018
Runtime: 100 minutes
Director: Lance Daly
Writer: Lance Daly, PJ Dillon, Pierce Ryan, Eugene O’Brien
Starring: Hugo Weaving, James Frecheville, Freddie Fox, Barry Keoghan, Stephen Rea, Jim Broadbent
Synopsis: Returning to Ireland in the midst of the notorious famine, a soldier fights back against the English establishment that has horribly mistreated his family and his people.
The new Irish revenge thriller Black ’47 takes its name from the worst and most devastating year of the Great Irish Famine. It’s a story set against the backdrop of a time of immense hardship for Irish people, during which the indigenous population suffered enormously under the rule of the British Crown as potato crops failed. The movie, which is drenched in blood, dirt and destitution at every turn, follows a highly-trained Irish soldier as he fights back against the establishment in the wake of his desertion.
That soldier is Feeney (James Frecheville), who returns from fighting abroad to find his mother dead from starvation and his brother hanged after a row with a local bailiff in which he stabbed the official. With nothing to live for and a severe distaste for the British authorities, he embarks on a bloody tour of revenge against all who he perceives to have wronged him, with the snooty landlord Lord Kilmichael (Jim Broadbent) at the top of his hit list. The English authorities hire disgraced detective Hannah (Hugo Weaving) and arrogant army officer Pope (Freddie Fox) to track Feeney down before he completes his odyssey of violence.
Black 47 is a very solid and intermittently gripping movie, aided by the grubby cinematography by Declan Quinn that brings to life the desperation and poverty of a nation in the clutches of famine. The film does a very good job of evoking the grim time period in a way that ensures Feeney’s quest for revenge has a palpable motive. The contrast between his family’s tiny village and the opulent homes of the English characters is drawn keenly and with a sense of injustice. The audience’s sympathy is with Feeney, even if his actions are never quite framed as cathartic and unequivocally morally righteous.
The violence when it comes is swift and vicious, with all of the ruthless efficiency befitting Feeney’s military training. Director Lance Daly gives these scenes an urgency that contrasts with the patient build-up of the rest of his story, as Weaving and his ragtag gang – with Barry Keoghan‘s Scouse greenhorn soldier and Stephen Rea as a local translator in tow alongside the deliciously pompous Pope – stalk Feeney from a few steps behind, trying to predict his next move. The pacing occasionally sags but, for the most part, this is a competent tale.
There is, however, something of a void where the movie’s emotion should be. A movie about the real world implications of the Great Famine is definitely one that needs to be told, but the lens of a revenge thriller is one of the least interesting ways to frame that story. Frecheville’s central turn is intense, but there’s little time devoted to the emotional core of his character and his cat and mouse relationship with Weaving is hardly the Valjean-Javert dynamic that it needs to be in order to make Black 47 really fly.
This emotional deficit feels most potent when the final act rolls around and asks the audience to invest in a series of character shifts that don’t make a great deal of sense. Black 47‘s patient build-up and handful of potent scenes – watch out for Keoghan’s shining moment – are largely squandered as the finale devolves into an orgy of violence that feels driven by the need for thrills and spectacle rather than the motivations of the characters. It’s a shame given the real high points elsewhere, but it means the movie ends on something of a bum note.
Pop or Poop?
When it focuses on depicting the true horrors of 19th century Ireland in the grip of famine, Black 47 is a powerful and visually impressive movie, anchored by urgent blasts of brutality. However, it lacks the emotional punch that it truly needs to make the central character dynamics sing and, but for a few scattered moments of genius, it emerges as a decent piece of filmmaking rather than a genuinely excellent one.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.