Film Review: Black 47

Directed by Lance Daly

Written by PJ Dillon, Pierce Ryan, Euguene O’Brien, Lance Daly

Starring: Hugo Weaving, James Frechville, Stephen Rea, Jim Broadbent, Barry Keoghan

Reviewer: John Dorney

It was with some curiosity that the Irish Story received an invitation to a screening of the new film Black 47 set during the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s. While we have reviewed films with an Irish historical content before, this was the first time we had been invited to a critics’ screening of a Hollywood film.

Moreover, reviewing say, a biopic of 1930s IRA leader Frank Ryan or Ken Loach’s film on left wing activist Jimmy Gralton, or indeed a documentary on RUC collusion into the 1994 Loughlinisland massacre are very different propositions from reviewing a wholly fictional film.

For a fictional historical film, an authentic atmosphere is more important than documentary accuracy

Which begs the question, what is the purpose of a history site reviewing a fictional film? Nitpicking on points of historical accuracy is somewhat pointless, unless there are grave errors that entirely skew the viewer’s  understanding of the past. Nor is there much point in citing plausibility or otherwise of the plot – it is after all supposed to be fiction.

So perhaps the best approach to take is this: firstly, does the film create a reasonable depiction of the past? In other words does it feel real and give the viewer a reasonable impression of the time it depicts?

Secondly, the historical reviewer is bound to ask, what cultural buttons in the present is the film trying to push? How does it represent the Famine to the modern viewer? And thirdly, as film, does it work?

Django in Ireland

The first thing that struck me about this film was how odd it felt. Essentially it is a kind of revenge western epic – imagine a cross between Clint Eastwood’s the Outlaw Josey Wales and Quentin Tarnatino’s Django Unchained – but set in Famine era Ireland.

Feeney, the main character played by Australian actor James Frecheville, is a deserter from the Connaught Rangers who arrives home to Connemara to find his family home destroyed, his mother dead of the famine fever and his sister and her children evicted and starving.

Black 47 is a kind of revenge western epic set in Famine era Ireland.

He proceeds to go on a murderous rampage against all those who oppress the people – the Irish Constabulary who enact eviction orders, the middlemen who grab land from those too poor to pay the rent, the judges who sentence starving men to death or transportation for theft and of course the landlord – ‘Lord Kilmichael’ (one wonders here if the reference to the 1920 IRA ambush is deliberate?) who extracts rents, evicts tenants and exports food under police protection.

Chasing him is Hugo Weaving,  a former soldier turned policemen (I could not shake the memory of his role as Agent Smith in the Matrix) and a young British officer, full of contempt for the Irish and along the way they pick up Stephen Rea, who plays a knowing Connemara peasant. Bloody shootouts, gruesome murders and ultimately double crosses ensue.

Though the film has plenty of gruesome violence it cannot convey the true horror of the famine.

So, to grapple with my first question, does the film do a good job in representing the background of the Great Famine? Yes and no. The stock images of the famine are all here, the evictions, the food convoys with armed guards heading out of the country, the cruel landlords.

Quite a bit of the dialogue – quite correctly for the time and not only in Connemara – is in Irish and even the non-Irish actors do a reasonable job at the correct pronunciation and inflection. The locations in Connemara appear suitably bleak but beautiful.

But in the end the film holds back from the true horror of the events. There are no piled up corpses in the workhouses, no cannibalism. The starving look poor but not dying. Some things are just too much for a film of this type to depict.

Some might object also that the film does not go into the complexities of the era. How, for instance, the Conservative government of Robert Peel went some way towards controlling the death toll by distributing free food, while the Liberals, traditional allies of Irish O’Connellites and reform in Ireland – made the crisis much worse by their belief in free market economics. The government of Sir John Russell discontinued the free soup kitchens and transferred all the burden of famine relief onto the Irish tax payer in 1847 – which went a long way towards that year being dubbed ‘Black 47’ in popular memory.

But this, I feel, would be asking too much of a film of this type. No, the discordant note is rather the premise, that an Irish avenging angel could appear right all the wrongs of the people. When depicting such an unredeemed tragedy as the Great Famine, this just seems to strike the wrong note.

Modern references

Moving on to the second question, what cultural significance in the present does the film have?

Feeney tells us that he served in Afghanistan and does some of his killing with a Kukri knife – the Ghurka’s weapon. Is the anti-imperial sentiment of film, perhaps, informed by the more recent western intervention in Afghanistan and in the wider middle east? It would seem so. And also the graphic depictions of violence might owe something to the images that have leaked out of the present day wars in Syria and Iraq.

As entertainment Black 47 works quite well but should not be confused with a documentary on the famine.

Interestingly also, while the film’s message is basically a pro-Irish nationalist one – the British are to blame for the famine – it is not a pro-Catholic one. Rather, perhaps reflecting the rapidly secularising drift of Irish society, Protestant and Catholic clergy are shown in an equally bad light and our protagonist, Feeney, is equally hostile to both.

Thirdly, it is probably fair to say that the film caters to a degree to the residual anti-Britishness of an American audience. In the end, Feeney advises his comrade ‘don’t fight them, go to America’.

Entertainment, not history

Finally, turning to my last question, as a film, is it any good? Walking away from the film I was not quite sure how to answer this, overcome with the oddness of a western revenge thriller set in the Great Famine.

Certainly the acting is good, from a strong cast. The fighting sequences are appropriately blood pounding and bloody, the chase plot is genuinely exciting and the plot twists unexpected. On the other hand, the characters are not terribly deeply drawn and some appear to have changes of heart for no immediately explicable reason.

As entertainment, however, Black 47 works quite well. As an introduction to the famine it is no more than a pastiche, a setting for an Irish western. But that is perhaps the most that can be expected from a film of this type.

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