★★★ 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.