Black 47 movie review: 'Lance Daly’s Famine epic is an admirable attempt to go where no one has gone before'
Black potatoes, women in rags, a million dead, a million gone: most of us understand the Great Famine sketchily, in half-remembered snatches from school books. Now that those geniuses at the Department of Education have decided that history is no longer a core subject, future generations may not remember it at all, yet it's the single most significant event in Irish history, the catastrophe that drove us off the path of glum compliance towards sustained insurgence.
The Famine put fire in revolutionaries' bellies and created a large, politically influential immigrant community in America that would be of huge help to us once independence had eventually been achieved. It's the ground zero of Irish history, yet it has never, to my knowledge, once been portrayed on film - till now.
Wisely, I would say, Lance Daly's Black 47 does not tackle the full horror of the Great Hunger head on, and instead uses it as a haunting backdrop for a moving and very entertaining genre picture - a revenge thriller, its director reckons, though to me it felt as much like a western, the kind of Irish film John Ford might have made if he'd been inclined to move beyond the wistful paddywhackery of The Quiet Man.
Australian actor James Frecheville (Animal Kingdom, The Stanford Prison Experiment) is Martin Feeney, a large and taciturn Connemara man who's been away fighting in Afghanistan with the British Army and returns home to be confronted by the full horror of the Famine.
In the ruins of his family homestead, he meets his half-starved sister-in-law Ellie (the excellent Sarah Greene), who tells him how his brother was hanged for resisting eviction by a vengeful judge, while his mother and remaining relatives were driven off their land to shiver in mud huts and hedges and slowly starve. A neighbour is grazing pigs in their roofless home, and when bailiffs and soldiers come to evict Ellie and her children from an empty cottage, Feeney is arrested when he attempts to help.
But he's a warrior, a seasoned, ruthless soldier, and lazy garrison troops are no match for him. He slaughters his unfortunate gaolers, escapes and takes to the hills, determined to avenge his family by hunting down and killing the judges, bailiffs, policemen and landlords who so mercilessly persecuted his people.
Meanwhile, Feeney's vengeful exploits have come to the ears of the British, who've ordered a ruthless former Afghan comrade of his called Hannah (Hugo Weaving) to track Feeney down. With him goes Pope (Freddie Fox), a priggish army captain whose smug beliefs in the virtues of patriotism and empire are about to be sorely tested. And as Hannah silently surveys the carnage in the west, his priorities begin to shift.
Filmed in Wicklow and Connemara, Lance Daly's film powerfully evokes the bleak hopelessness of 1840s Ireland, an upside down land gripped by despair that no one seems quite in charge of. Not all the English are monsters, and Barry Keoghan plays a young Liverpudlian soldier who's so shocked by the endless and needless misery that he decides to do something about it. Jim Broadbent's Lord Kilmichael is less empathetic, a gouty landlord who calls Gaelic "that aboriginal gibberish" and dreams aloud of a time when a Gaelic Irishman will be "as rare a sight as a Red Indian in Manhattan". In the fields and hills around him, that wish would appear to be coming true.
In Black 47, language becomes a weapon in the uneven battle between oppressor and oppressed. The judges in the law courts erupt in fury when the peasants start conversing as Gaeilge, and by the end of the film Feeney has become so thoroughly radicalised that he won't speak a word of English.
Stephen Rea is the heart and pulse of this film, playing Conneely, a cunning, clever western countryman who hides his broken-hearted anger behind a crooked smile and mocks the English at every turn. As they search the Connemara hills for Feeney, with him as their not entirely reliable translator and guide, Conneely sings endless ballads to annoy the British tourists. He's a survivor, who's prepared to share a drink with Lord Kilmichael and tell him languid jokes, but you get the sense he'll never forget what happened in the west in 1847, and will never forgive it either.
The film's not perfect: low budgets and a daunting historical backdrop has necessarily led to corner-cutting, most of which Daly and Co get away with. And I might have been inclined to avoid the use of cloying uilleann pipes in the soundtrack - there's nothing wrong with them, they're just trite in an Irish setting. But these are minor quibbles, and, overall, Black 47 succeeds magnificently in evoking the misery of the Famine while simultaneously treating us to a rattling adventure yarn.
Its ambition is admirable.
Black 47 (15A, 99mins) 4/5 stars
Also releasing this week: American Animals 5 star movie review: 'Barry Keoghan mesmerises in thrilling heist flick'