by Brandon Thomas
The Irish haven’t always fared so well in the world of cinema. Sean Connery’s singing in Darby O’Gill and the Little People isn’t quite remembered as one of the top musical performances. Thankfully, in the years since Darby O’Gill, the Irish have fared a lot better with films like My Left Foot, Angela’s Ashes and Once.
Black ’47 opens at the height of the Great Famine in Ireland – a time when countless Irish left their homeland for America, and when over a million that stayed died of starvation. At this time, Ireland is also under the punishing rule of the British Empire. While the Irish people starve, the British lords presiding over Ireland complain that the people want “too much.”
Martin Feeney (James Frecheville) has returned to Ireland after having deserted the British Army while fighting in Afghanistan. Feeney learns that his mother has succumbed to the famine, and his brother has been hanged for murder. Desperate to get his remaining family out of Ireland, he pleads with them to join him in going to America. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes, and Feeney finds himself hunted by former comrade Hannah (Hugo Weaving), and two young British soldiers (Freddie Fox and Barry Keoghan).
What’s immediately interesting about Black ’47 is that it’s essentially a Western. These characters might not be fighting the Comanche, or ordering up a bottle of whiskey in a saloon, but the Western tropes are there: the recently returned solider seeking revenge; the posse turned lose to hunt down a raging outlaw; evil land barons uninterested in the lives they destroy. Director Lance Daly has fun tipping his hat at the great American genre, while never going full John Ford.
Any good Western homage has to be anchored by lead performances with presence. Frecheville brings a soulless quality to Martin. He is a man that barely had anything to begin with, and when the rest is taken from him he becomes cold and methodical. Grieving isn’t an option, and the emptiness in Frecheville’s eyes in the latter half of the film is chilling.
Weaving’s world-weary Hannah slowly becomes the moral compass of the film. He’s numb to so much of the horror around him – having participated in it, too – but Feeney’s rampage opens up something in the veteran soldier that he can’t quiet. Weaving has a gravitas that cannot be ignored.
Black ’47 has something to say about the horrors of Ireland’s past. The film just wants to say it through the guise of shootouts and rollicking revenge.