Black 47

Empire (UK) - - CINEMA - Ver­dict Ian Freer

★★★ OUT 27 septem­ber CERT 15 / 100 mins

di­rec­tor Lance Daly

cast James Frecheville, Hugo Weav­ing, Fred­die Fox, Barry Keoghan, Stephen Rea

Plot 1847. Ire­land is in the grip of the potato famine. Re­turn­ing home, Feeney (Frecheville), an Ir­ish de­serter from the Bri­tish im­pe­rial army, goes on a mis­sion to avenge the death of his fam­ily. Feeney’s old mil­i­tary com­rade, Han­nah (Weav­ing), along with English of­fi­cer Pope (Fox) and pri­vate Hob­son (Keoghan), set off in pur­suit.

If It’s not the first Ir­ish-tinged West­ern (John ford’s The Quiet Man and Mike newell’s Into The West are per­haps the most no­table ex­am­ples), few have em­braced the genre’s tics and tropes so fully and smartly as Lance Daly’s film set dur­ing the Potato famine. from lone horse­man in wide-open spa­ces to evil land barons to sta­ble shoot-outs right down to di­a­logue (“state your busi­ness…”), Black 47 is only re­ally miss­ing the Duke or Clint. Well-in­ten­tioned, timely and im­pres­sive in parts, the film ul­ti­mately falls be­tween two stools; it is nei­ther pow­er­ful sear­ing his­tor­i­cal drama with genre thrills nor a grind­house pay­back flick set in an un­usual pe­riod mi­lieu.

the ti­tle is a ref­er­ence to 1847, the worst year of the famine that saw a mil­lion peo­ple die and some two mil­lion up­rooted. Amid this po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal (starved mother, hanged brother) hor­ror, Ir­ish de­serter feeney (An­i­mal King­dom’s frecheville, good beard), be­gins a roller­coaster ride of re­venge, tak­ing out crooked cops, posho army of­fi­cers and cal­lous rent col­lec­tors with the deft­ness of Bryan Mills. In re­sponse, the Bri­tish mil­i­tary send Han­nah (Weav­ing, good beard), a dis­graced of­fi­cer who served with feeney in Afghanistan, to take him down, joined by fop­pish of­fi­cer Pope (fox, no beard) and ide­al­is­tic young pri­vate, Hob­son (Keoghan, bum fluff ).

sadly, the film never finds a way into its mys­te­ri­ous cen­tral fig­ure. from the point he be­comes a one-man-army, he is less a three di­men­sional char­ac­ter — frecheville’s blank per­for­mance doesn’t il­lu­mi­nate him — and more the em­bod­i­ment of a na­tion’s righ­teous anger. Daly does bet­ter with the hunters than the hunted. Weav­ing’s cock­ney soldier has light and shade, dom­i­nat­ing the pro­ceed­ings in the sec­ond half of the film as a man be­gin­ning to ques­tion his (and his coun­try’s) mo­tives. Also reg­is­ter­ing are Keoghan’s young-pri­vate­with-a-con­science and the ever-re­li­able Rea, who adds soul as an imp­ish trans­la­tor-turned-guide.

Daly cre­ates ar­rest­ing im­ages — a skull in a pud­dle, a mem­o­rable use of a pig’s head — and the film makes the hard­ship tan­gi­ble in a strik­ing cold, bleached-out look. the ac­tion scenes are also mounted with skill: the cli­max sees feeney use dou­ble mus­ket ac­tion like a 19th cen­tury Chow Yun-fat. Yet the mis­sion of vengeance through-line is blunted by a slug­gish mid­dle sec­tion and Daly’s de­sire to re­veal the coun­try’s tragedy in lengthy di­a­logue scenes (of­ten ad­mirably in Gaelic but sub­ti­tled). Yet he also can’t make Black 47 com­pletely work as a pow­er­ful piece of his­tor­i­cal drama, lack­ing char­ac­ter nu­ance — the Brits are all one-note of evil — and in­ter­est­ing the­matic dy­nam­ics. Am­bi­tious and well-mean­ing as the film is, such an im­por­tant pe­riod in Ir­is­hanglo re­la­tions de­serves more.

Black 47 lacks the se­ri­ous­ness and rigour of other dis­placed Westerns like The Propo­si­tion and Sweet Coun­try. But Lance daly’s film is grip­ping enough to sug­gest Ire­land’s tragic back­story is a fron­tier full of res­o­nant riches.

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