In the height of the Irish Famine, an army deserter named Feeney (James Frecheville) returns to Ireland to emigrate to America with his family. After a series of tragic events, Feeney snaps and goes on a violent killing spree against the officers and landlords who have pushed the people of Ireland into destitution and starvation. In order to stop him, an old army friend of Feeney’s called Hannah (Hugo Weaving) is hired to hunt him down and spare himself from being hanged after he murdered a criminal suspect back when he was an inspector. Things get more complicated as Hannah and his group wane through the starved local populous and begin to realise Feeney’s real target.
The Irish Famine was one of the most devastating events in our history, causing a massive dip in our population and having cultural effects to this day. There aren’t many people who do not know about it in our humble country. It’s odd, then, that a movie of this calibre have never been attempted on the event before. Even stranger is that this one took the approach of being a revenge drama. Not that it doesn’t work here, of course; if there’s one thing ripe for exploitation in cinema for this backdrop, it’s absolute hatred for the English sovereignty in Ireland during the time.
And Black 47 works wonderfully to this advantage! The set up for Feeney’s descent into absolute bloodlust is simple, but resonant. It’s like he fights for the souls of those let down by the aristocracy who took advantage of a famine. Helping this is moody but gorgeous cinematography. While the lighting makes it a bit too murky for my taste, the framing is stunning and really takes advantage of the haunting beauty Ireland can have.
While most of the English characters or guards (including a wonderfully performed if thankless role by Moe Dunford as an Irish guard) are not exactly deep, what helps offset the movie is the subplot with Hannah and his two companions. While Pope could have been just an arrogant upperclass soldier, Freddie Fox gives him enough gravitas and nuance to really make him stand out. Barry Keoghan does another wonderful turn as youngest of the team Hobson, proving what a great up and comer he is.
In terms of the rest of the cast, Stephen Rea gives an amusing turn as haggard but wise translator for this group. Jim Broadbent is a little miscast as Lord Kilmichael, but does a stellar job as the slimy, unscrupulous nobleman. Weaving is great, though he could do this part in his sleep and Hannah does not have the most unpredictable of arcs. Probably the highlight of the cast is James Frecheville, who has the quiet rage down so perfectly.
While it’s probably as deep as a puddle, Black ’47 is compelling, fun and satisfying. The cast do a great job, it has very little pacing problems and there are a few scenes that have me gripped. Django Unchained for the Famine is not an inaccurate comparison, but to paraphrase my good friend Nathan, it’s the kind of movie Ireland needs more of.