In a year that has offered cinemagoers culturally distinctive takes on the western genre from countries as disparate as Australia (Sweet Country), Indonesia (Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts) and South Africa (Five Fingers for Marseille), it’s no surprise to find Irish cinema adopting the tropes of that most traditionally American of genres.
Within minutes of director Lance Daly’s Black 47 it becomes clear just what a good fit the Ireland of 1847 is with the western genre, with its rugged landscape, narcissistic landowners and soldiers returning from wars they didn’t understand.
The returning soldier here is Feeney (James Frecheville), an Irishman who arrives back in the west of Ireland after a stint serving with the British army in Afghanistan. The country he finds is a shell of the one he left, ravaged by a potato blight that will eventually cost over a million lives and see over two million of Ireland’s people emigrate en masse to Britain, Australia and the US. His family home is crumbling and now housing the local rent collector’s prize pig, his mother has died from a fever and his brother has been killed by the police over a relatively trivial crime.
When agents of the local landlord shoot Feeney’s young nephew dead, the soldier starts a fight with the police and is taken into custody. While being questioned, he escapes, stabbing and slashing his way through the members of the local constabulary with his deadly Kukri knife, a Nepalese dagger which like Feeney himself, is a weapon appropriated by the British forces.
Determined to track down Feeney, the British army offers a reprieve to Hannah (Hugo Weaving), the officer whose command Feeney served under and who is now facing hanging for the murder of a suspect in his custody. Hannah reluctantly accepts and sets off in the company of young officer Pope (Freddie Fox), joined along the way by opportunistic native Conneely (Stephen Rea), a storyteller who wishes to chronicle the hunt for Feeney, who is now continuing his rampage across Connemara, murdering anyone he feels responsible for his people’s current sorry state.
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Considering not only its dramatic potential but the role it played in shaping the ethnic landscape of North America, it’s surprising that Hollywood has thus far never tackled the subject of the Irish famine. Black 47’s more rough around the edges elements (unconvincing matte paintings, a tepid musical score) suggest a larger budget would have gone a long way to smoothing them out, but the core components - writing, direction, acting - more than paper over the cracks.
Daly’s handles his film’s outbreaks of violence in a decidedly old school manner, devoid of jerky camera and quickfire editing, and his film has more in common with the gritty westerns of the ‘70s than any recent examples of the genre. Violence often explodes in wide shots, catching the audience and the on screen victims off guard.
Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales would appear to be Daly’s main influence here, along with John Hillcoat’s Australian ‘Meat Pie’ western The Proposition. Both movies feature criminals forced to hunt down men they once considered friends. The soldier returning home to find his people consider him a traitor is reminiscent of First Blood, and when Feeney’s face is pushed into the earth by a policeman’s boot and becomes caked in mud, it’s impossible not to think of Stallone’s John Rambo.
Movies that deal with English colonialism tend to present a simplistic, morally black and white take, with rugged noble natives battling dastardly Oxbridge educated fops. In Fox’s Pope, Black 47 has its clichéd fop, but its natives are far from noble, forced by their dire situation to betray their own people and culture for a bowl of soup. Ironically, the closest the film has to a noble figure is a young working class English conscript played by Barry Keoghan, who bravely takes a stand when he learns the true horrors of the famine and its causes.
In the years since Ireland was granted independence, the Irish have come to learn that their own ruling classes are no different than the British who handed over the keys, and that the struggle wasn’t between cultures or creeds, but between classes. In his film’s most striking moment, Daly has Feeney grip two men of the cloth by their respective collars, one a Protestant minister offering soup in exchange for conversion, the other a Roman Catholic priest encouraging his parishioners to starve rather than convert. Had Feeney known one would eventually hand over power to the other, transferring Irish rule from London to the Vatican, he may well have squeezed their windpipes a little harder.
Black 47 - 3 ½ stars out of 5
Starring: Hugo Weaving, James Frecheville, Stephen Rea, Freddie Fox, Barry Keoghan, Moe Dunford, Sarah Greene, Jim Broadbent