When Ireland’s potato famine reached its most desolate and devastating, Black 47 was the end result: the worst year in a period filled with them, when death, starvation and homelessness were the only things sprouting from the soil. Taking the term as its title, Lance Daly’s (‘The Good Doctor’) latest film not only depicts the bleak historical chapter but fashions it into the backdrop for a revenge-fuelled Irish western. Solemn in its tenor but impassioned in its heart, it’s more effective, rousing and involving than its blend of real-life hardship and hearty genre might sound.
By Sarah Ward
A troubled homecoming sparks Black 47 into action. Trotting along the dusty vistas of Connemara to make his return — without official leave — from serving in the British military in Afghanistan, Feeney (James Frecheville) expects to find a despair-inducing sight, but it's unforetold grief, pain and sorrow that await. After learning of his mother and brother’s demise, then enduring even further loss, the taciturn soldier plots his vengeance upon the powers-that-be he holds responsible. Soon, however, the devoted Captain Pope (Freddie Fox), young Private Hobson (Barry Keoghan) and Feeney's former colleague turned cop Hannah (Hugo Weaving) are on his trail.
Australian actor James Frecheville | © Berlinale
A chase promptly ensues, or a series of well-staged incidents, to be precise — Feeney leaving destruction in his wake, making his feelings about the uncaring church or greedy landowners known through violence, and the lawmen behind him playing catch-up. Stellar performances come with it, as Black 47
relays thoroughly Irish events with the able and excellent assistance of Jim Broadbent, Stephen Rea, and Australians Frecheville and Weaving. The former, often using physicality rather than Gaelic words, gets his best role since Animal Kingdom
. The latter, a seasoned veteran at inhabiting conflicted men who ooze complexity as well as weary charm, perfects everything about his crucial character.
BALANCING GENRE WITH REALITY
The film's central cat-and-mouse game also illustrates its impressive balancing act, as Black 47
champions a retribution-filled storyline but never lets thrills overpower the grim truth of its real-life basis. Like many westerns, it instead uses one to emphasize, flesh out and add texture to the other, the potency of a man driven to revenge to redress grave wrongs — and another caught in the middle — never waning. And grave, this rarely-see-on-screen time in history most definitely was, the certainty of which Daly infuses into every frame. Just looking at the work of cinematographer Declan Quinn (Ricki and the Flash
) makes that apparent, as rolling hills caked in mud purposefully strip the sheen from the feature’s scenic images, while lingering shots of Frecheville and Weaving’s faces ensure that hurt and heartbreak never slip out of sight.